Don’t tell your friends that HOTSUPER is the most innovative story I’ve interacted with in years!
The gameplay sucks though.
Hotsuper (2016) engaged me from start-to-finish with it’s well-told, cohesive and necessary story. It tells the tale of a man metaphorically ‘waking up’ to realise that he is trapped in a world in which he has little to no control over his actions. The author cleverly subverts this well-trodden subject matter by writing the protagonist of this gripping narrative as a player within a videogame world. The contrasts between control and powerlessness, along with player and who’s-bein’-play’d-sucka?? have been told several times before in popular media; however, the author of Hotsuper has taken these familiar elements and implemented them in fresh, innovative and succinct ways, that are not-over-bearing in the slightest.
It’s too bad that the gameplay aspects of the Hotsuper experience are contrived, drawn-out, and unnecessarily bloat an otherwise excellent story-telling experience. The gameplay sections of Hotsuper almost ruined the game for me.
Allow me to paint a picture. In one section of Hotsuper, you are stuck in a prison cell. The word “DANCE” flashes onto the screen, and you must oblige by moving the player around to move the story forward. The story gloats that it controls your actions; it is really clever. This was really gripping stuff, that had me at the edge of my seat! I was thoroughly enjoying it, when suddenly, it forced me into a gameplay section, which I found boring and tedious. The gameplay literally sits at a stop until you move. You use weapons like guns, swords, and thrown objects to kill enemies, but the game doesn’t move until you do, allowing time to apply strategy and thought into the action-scene that is about to play out. Talk about boring! After slogging through this tedious gameplay (which, mind-you, I couldn’t skip), Hotsuper mercifully returned to the story, which was great stuff. “TRY TO DISCONNECT” it told me. I pushed the escape key – nothing happened! “Whoa!” I said, “this is amazing story-telling – what a cool experience!” And then I’m forced back into dreadful, boring, unskippable, convoluted, drawn-out, insultingly-dull gameplay that I can’t push Esc to skip – oh the irony!
While I have my gripes with the aforementioned gameplay, the story was clearly written by people who have read lots of philosophy stuff, and probably also the lyrics of those really brainy djent bands that have smart-sounding song titles, or that Devin Townsend song where he yells out “STRING THEORY!” They probably even read the novelisation of The Matrix rather than watch the movie. That’s the kind of intelligence this story is at.
However, one good thing about the gameplay sections of the game, is that after you suffer through the slog of each level, you’re rewarded by big words covering the boring replay of the level you’ve just played though; HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER… and a cool guy robot voice says “HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…HOT… SUPER… HOT… SUPER…!” as well. It’s definitely a highlight of the game.
This is a more negative post than I usually like to write, especially about a small indie, innovative and enjoyable game (when it lets you play it) like Superhot. I absolutely recommend it, but with the caveat that the overbearing story-breaks will drive you mad at points.
While I really enjoyed Superhot, I didn’t like that the story kept wrestling control away from me, breaking the flow of what was otherwise very fun and engaging gameplay. In regards to the story, that lack of control being taken away was of-course the point, and there were certainly interesting aspects and moments explored with this. However, sections like the “DANCE” part, while memorable (granted), were infuriating in breaking the fun pace of the game; it turned playing the game into a chore at times. By wrestling away player control, the Superhot experience was oftentimes more infuriating than intriguing.
Marrying games and story is not easy, as silly terms like Ludo-Narrative Dissonance imply by their mere existence. Story in gameplay is often not even necessary. In David Kushner’s Masters of Doom book, there’s a significant chapter that mentions Tom Hall’s design document for Doom, describing a large book containing his vision for the game’s story. Ultimately, this was rejected by the rest of id as they recognised the strength of their game-engine was in creating a fast, kinetic shooter not bogged down by story. At some point in the development process, Superhot should have had the same treatment. The gameplay is so innovative and fun, and while it does require thought and consideration, it is also fundamentally a kinetic shooter where mistakes (that can happen often) lead to quick restarts, which keep the pace of the game quick and fluid. It begs to be played through without interruption – at least not interruption every two levels. The story simply took away from the gameplay, and as a result, took away from the overall experience.
Superhot should have been gameplay only, or just kept the story to a very bare-minimum. In the lead-up to it’s release, excitement and consumer-awareness was being built around the game’s mechanics. On release, the game – while overall well-received – was criticised primarily for it’s short length and (some said) overbearing story. It was the sort of game that, had it just opened straight into gameplay rather than dallying and stalling with unnecessary story-telling, I think it would’ve been shared and talked about a lot more. At the end of the game, Superhot instructs you to tell your friends that Superhot is “the most innovative shooter I’ve played in years”. People probably would have done this anyway. A lesson in not putting too many eggs in your basket.
I think time will have us look back at the last few months of 2015 and the first few of 2016 to see that there was a bit of a trend of ‘meta’ storytelling videogames releasing. The most famous two examples that did it well I can remember immediately were Undertale and Pony Island. I have to wonder if the story of Superhot was forced in or quickly padded after the success of these two games; an attempt to generate talk and comparisons that were never necessary when the gameplay of the game was the real strength. and should have remained the sole focus of the experience.