Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
“The body is disposable,” you’re told as you work through Superhot—and it’s about that moment that you realize the game was never a game at all: it was just a means of deploying a vicious signal into your brain. One that, like a virus, is taking over and replacing you with itself.
Indie shooter Superhot is basically a puzzle game in which you figure out how best to shoot bad guys without getting blasted yourself. The gimmick is that, in each level, time only advances when you move, staying frozen if you stand still. It gives you ample time to think through situations and use enemies, the environment and all manner of weapons to your advantage.
But in the world of Superhot, the game is more than a game; it’s a pirated product intercepted from the internet, unfinished and unready for public consumption. You play a hacker who gets hold of the game by illegal means and suddenly finds themselves intrigued and unable to stop playing. It’s unclear how much influence the game is having on you and what it’s doing to your mind.
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s very close to David Cronenberg’s 1983 film Videodrome. And like Videodrome, Superhot imagines a world in which technology and biology merge—with or without the user’s consent.
Videodrome tapped into the 1980s zeitgeist of television advancing beyond the control of the society that created it, delving into the idea that what’s created for and consumed through television can reflect the darkest aspects and desires of the human psyche. The story follows Max Renn, the president of a trashy, tiny television station that peddles softcore porn and hardcore violence to its apparently skeezy viewership, as he searches for the next big thing in morally reprehensible entertainment.
Renn stumbles on Videodrome, a signal pirated from the airwaves by the 1983 version of a television hacker, much in the way the player stumbles on Superhot. Basically, Videodrome is a snuff film: a naked woman is tortured and murdered in a drab room by masked figures. Renn finds he can’t turn away and sets out to track down the makers in Pittsburgh, thinking the show could put his little station on the map. But Videodrome is more than a show, and soon, Renn finds himself in its thrall, hallucinating horrible things that might, in fact, be real.
There’s a disgusting, horrific blending of technology and biology throughout the movie. Renn imagines a gaping hole in his chest in which he can insert objects, much to his terror; he hallucinates a strangely sensual encounter with his girlfriend through his TV, the set itself sighing and undulating under his touch; and he finds a gun literally growing into his hand, his flesh contouring around it so it becomes a part of him.
The effect of Videodrome on Renn is calculated—it’s mind control and mutation all in one, created by someone with a sinister purpose. It’s almost the same story as what’s found in Superhot, with the game taking hold of the player over time until they’re no longer in control of what’s happening.
The further you play in Superhot, the greater its hold over you, at least in the fiction of the game. As a hacker, you’re supposedly interacting with other people through a text-based operating system, like that early scene in The Matrix when Neo gets his first message from Morpheus. You hit keys on your keyboard to send responses to these other people, but you don’t control what you type—the game fills it in for you. You’re never in control in Superhot.
When Superhot says “the body is disposable,” it’s at a moment in which the game is literally trying to convince to kill “yourself,” the player character, and become one with the system. The game might not have the graphic imagery that Cronenberg gave Videodrome, but it’s implying the same creepy ideas: the only way to be free of the physical is to kill it.
Both Videodrome and Superhot imagine a world where the mind and the body are separate, and the virtual self—or the TV self—is separate from the physical self. They both wonder if reality through the filter of technology can become something more, or something else, and whether that transition can be manipulated from the outside against our wills.
LONG LIVE THE NEW FLESH
Cronenberg approached the same question using video games instead of television in his 1999 movie eXistenZ, but from a different direction. In that movie, virtual reality games become so real they almost replace, and displace, actual reality. But in Videodrome and Superhot, we’re not made to wonder about the value of the virtual versus the real. Instead, the virtual becomes an insidious force that corrupts reality.
The questions you might read into Videodrome are: how much of this (in the movie’s case, television) is too much, will we know it when we see it, and what is it doing to us? With Superhot, we might extend those questions to video games.
Superhot isn’t exactly invoking a new idea when it floats the notion that maybe the game you’re playing is having more of an effect on you than you realize. But its presentation does beg some interesting questions when you consider that it’s not just any game, but a first-person shooter—once upon a time the most reviled of “murder simulators,” a genre including games like Doom and Call of Duty that’s been long maligned by people looking to keep violent games out of the hands of children.
The violence in Superhot is downplayed through a graphical presentation on the sterile and non-human side, but the story it tells still shines a big spotlight on one key idea: You’re playing a game, and it’s about using guns to hurt people. It’s not just any game that is actually a mind-control signal created by an unknown evil conspiracy: it’s a shooter, and you’re the kind of person who would play it.
Of course, Superhot isn’t the first shooter to suggest that maybe playing shooters might be kind of a gross thing to do. In 2012, Spec Ops: The Line’s huge ham fists hit the idea pretty hard with a Middle East take on Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness. In it, you play an American soldier killing other, renegade American soldiers, as the game asks you whether doing so makes you feel like a hero. When Spec Ops demands you do something that winds up killing scores of innocent civilians, you’re supposed to step back and wonder what it is you get out of this whole “shooting pretend people in the head” experience.
Far Cry 3 went after the same notion in 2012, but with a more satirical take. In it, you play a vacationing Millennial whose friends are kidnapped by modern-day pirates. After escaping, you become a gun-toting killing machine living out a full-on video game fantasy, having a great time murdering your way across a tropical island while your rescued friends deal with much more realistic problems, like PTSD and an ongoing fear for their lives.
Both games, however, aren’t quite as effective in conveying their ideas as Superhot, which plays them less straight and more strange. Like Videodrome, Superhot gets across its weird story with over-the-top events, even as it defers from using things like graphic violence or even realistic visuals. Superhot is constantly taking away your control as you play; it tells a story about how you’re brainwashed by the game; and even its tagline—“the most innovative shooter in years”—is satirical. (At the end of the game, fully a thrall to Superhot, you’re sent back to the internet to spread it by describing the game in those terms.)
It’s literally what some in the press said when Superhot first appeared on Kickstarter. Now it’s an in-joke that seems to ask, how much pride should one take in a “shooter” being “innovative?”
Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer and the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel and The Space Hero’s Guide to Glory. He was hoping the latter would help him get Han Solo hair, but so far he’s been unsuccessful. He lives with his wife and annoying cats in Los Angeles.
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