A Dancing Shooter

superhot

In SUPERHOT time passes and slows alongside your movement. It’s a simple, intuitive mechanic. Standing still allows you to frame the moment, to savour a guard’s dying breath, watch his floating body disintegrate like a fading dream. From across the courtyard, a duo’s hail of bullets freeze at the mouths of their guns, crawling achingly forward, a storm of energy and death waiting for release. Any motion from your feet or neck pushes them faster onward, but you can pause to think, project their paths and carefully step around them.

You can get a feel of it yourself here, it’s playable in your browser and should only take you ten minutes to complete. Its elegant in its brevity for showcasing the time manipulation mechanic, serving well as a prototype to shoot it developers through Steam Greenlight, but this dollop of gameplay in itself is striking in its shooting design, if only because of how reduced and empty it appears beside practically every other shooter out there.

I’ve mentioned before that shooting as a solitary mechanic isn’t enjoyable. I’m not sure if that assertion melds well with consensus, it’s not exactly like we can test it as a hypothesis in a lab environment since you simply can’t control for the things that might make it resonate emotionally with the player in some way. In the past I’ve used the anecdote that killing a baddie with ten bullets isn’t twice as fun as killing him with five–given how people tend to look down on arbitrarily high hit points as a dissatisfying way to prolong a boss battle rather than as a fantastic opportunity to shoot more bullets, I think it’s a sound enough grounds to proceed upon.

In the case of most modern shooters, shooting is taken as a primitive, elementary action, like a seed from which to grow the desired emotion, a sensation of fun, a release of tension, or whatever. It’s gameplay grammar; we widely understand that when a game asks you to shoot someone, it’s using that action to express a sentiment, and it’s asking us to share in that moment’s feeling. More broadly, the overall design of a game’s shooting mechanics, by which I mean everything relevant to the core gameplay extending out from that elementary grammar, founds a sensation–the spirit of an emotion it wants you to share–as integral to the narrative as a soul is to a body. Without it, we get games that feel lifeless to play, or are so cluttered and mismatching they cannibalize any semblance of self.

Usually extrapolation on the shooting mechanic involves throwing your way loads of different types of baddies, guns, grenades, magic powers, different ways to move around the map, all behaving sufficiently divergent from their kin so that each provides you with a slightly different sensation, and when put together creates a nice dynamic that nourishes you for the duration of the game, just as a fine meal balances conflicting and complimentary tastes without overstaying its welcome. That’s most games, although perhaps minus the last three words.

Taking aside SUPERHOT‘s time manipulation mechanic, it’s oddly satisfying that there isn’t very much to its shooting. Notably your weaponry is limited to the pistol, the most rudimentary, boring starting piece in pretty much every other shooter, its function here limited to the most basic act of killing: a tool of primal expression. The minimalistic gunplay meshes with its art style so your actions, your ability to reach out and relate to the world, are equally as vivid and base as the siren red of an enemy in your sights. For the narrative of acquiescence to subliminal control, though you may not know why you’re acting except to satisfy the orders flashing before your eyes, everything for in the world is to heighten the pleasure of obeying. Beyond the music droning in your ear, tempering the gross impact of your murder spree, nearly the only sounds you can hear are those consequent of killing: the boom of a bullet leaving your barrel, the wet chunk as it hits its target, the shutter of the bodycounter, the tinkle of your casing bouncing along the floor. Each sound is a pin through the silence, a returning echo confirming your action and your living in a sanitised world.

With the time mechanic comes peace, of mind and of action. Unlike twitch shooters where being stationary tempts death, here it empowers you over your foes, grants you respite to observe the room and resolve your next action. The calming slow removes you from the adrenaline of the fight, it disconnects you from the world as an inhabitant, making of you an observer, detached, uninvolved till the next moment. Even to watch a bullet inch through the air three feet before you, two feet, one foot, to slowly enter the bottom of the screen and bring about your end, is an experience filled not of dread but of aesthetic curiosity. Because everything worth looking at derives from the threat and result of killing, the world you frame by pausing time is most visually interesting and lively when bullets cross the screen or bodies float sprawling.

I’ve seen others describe it as feeling like a puzzle game, like a turn-based shooter where you think on and enact a solution for how best to eliminate the enemies. To me it feels more like a dance, your moments of pause time to ponder the next step in your choreography. Weaving in and out of a rain of fire, tip-toeing toward a guard as he reaches for his gun–the effect of governing time through your movement is a relationship of efficiency or elegance or power between you and the space around you. Your pauses and your stepping are beats to the flow of combat; the artistry of this gameplay comes about not from the act of killing, although the sounds and positive conditioning reward you for each downed enemy, but from the internal sensation of creating flow through your actions. Though the peacefulness of frozen time is empowering and beautiful in the world it presents you, it’s the space between a heartbeat, it’s the world holding its breath, waiting for your next move. Everything seems fragile and delicate, so close to death but tranquil. The world feels a dream and you the dreamer.

Satisfaction from your murder spree is of aesthetic wonder, from the artistry of motion, rather than intellectual. It’s from the picturesque still of order in a scene of chaos and from the return of this order through your dance. This sensation is completed by the compliment of minimalist mechanical design with art style, from which comes a sense of unity and simplicity in understanding. The world is so pure, so right, if you only obey.

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