"If the bus goes under 50 miles per hour, it will blow up."
That, surely, is the greatest blockbuster pitch of all time. It's short, it's original and it's laced with opportunity – upon hearing it, the imagination of any producer worth his salt would instantly have lit up with dozens of potential action scenes. Superhot's high concept – "time only moves when you move" – is perhaps not as tangible or immediately provocative as the top line of Speed, but in this seemingly endless era of rote first-person shooters, it's just as exciting. This is the game that shooters need.
Game-makers have forgotten about pacing, forgotten about violence, forgotten about mental as well as physical engagement. I thought Black Ops III was fantastic. But the rest of its ilk – Battlefield Hardline, Halo 5, Star Wars: Battlefront – are emblematic of a genre of games, and a crop of game-makers, that have come to value, above everything, the basest pleasures. We aim. We shoot. We collect points. And then we are told this is what shooters are for and that to expect anything more of them is unfair. What nonsense. The only disservice done to shooting games has been complacency. Players, critics and creators have allowed this genre to rest and as a result it's grown lazy.
Would the makers of Superhot, the conveniently named Superhot Team of Poland, agree? Presumably. Beneath the game's balletic, stop/start combat are themes of susceptibility and conformity – the more your character, or perhaps you, accept what you are told, the more ensnared in an enigmatic, assimilative system you become. "Time moves when you move." Entertainment, art, or whatever cultural umbrella term you personally file games beneath, can only grow when it's challenged. Superhot is a new type of shooter. It deconstructs the standards by which we've come to measure the genre and in their place encourages more sophisticated thinking.
Look at it this way: when was the last time shooting a person in a video game – a single person – was a physical effort? When did a video game gunfight last test anything beyond your reflex skills? What do you remember, specifically, about all those battles from all those war games? Game-makers have taken what should be a spectacular experience and made it blasé. To that tragedy, Superhot is the response.
Slowed to a crawl, gun fighting in Superhot becomes appropriately arduous. Every turn of your head, every twist of your reticule moves your enemy's bullets closer to you, and each one spells instant death. You can never just aim, shoot, move onto the next guy – your ability is measured not in how many bodies you rack up, or waves of enemies you defeat, but how effectively you out-manoeuvre single opponents. As much as it does a shooter, Superhot plays like a puzzle game. With time stopped, reflexes and twitch reactions have little importance. As the game often repeats, especially during its climax, the body is disposable – it's your mind that matters.
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And what other shooters would make that claim? The genre takes pride in discord. Its ability to overwhelm and bypass players' cognitions, and reduce people to reactionaries, has been perfected over decades, to the point that, in video gaming, "fun" has become synonymous with "mindless". With each graceful showdown, Superhot invites you to think about shooting. Its lessons are not explicitly moral – the men you kill are not eventually revealed to be civilians, and you're a mass murderer, or something token like that.
By re-staging the video game gunfight as a battle against individuals rather than a group, and slowing it to a point where every action must be considered in detail, Superhot challenges the idea of shooting as muscle memory. In the literal sense, killings and combat cannot be blithely performed. If you aspire to the precision and choreography implied by Superhot's conceit, you must carefully consider each bullet that you fire – the game's violence is never offhand.
'Superhot', release date trailer
Our most popular genre is also our most frenzied – to the entirely uninitiated, Call of Duty, so big and so much, must seem impenetrable. It's a terrible shame. I've long considered shooters to be among the most fascinating cultural oddities, works that – because of their flaws, not despite them – warrant study above all types of video game. But communicating them to a wider audience is difficult. Therein lies the central paradox of modern shooters. They are far and away our most beloved and best-selling video games, but also our most alienating. To anybody who has never picked up a game controller, the esotericism of a first-person shooter has to be off-putting.
Superhot's lowered pace and its valuing of mind over video game experience present, I would like to think, a bridge into shooters. The concept is simple to explain and instantly magnetic. The button presses are few and the mechanics are simple. Gunfights, quite literally, proceed only at a speed with which the player is comfortable. There are no lieutenants shouting orders, no explosions, objectives or melodramatics to divide your attention. The focus, exclusively, is on movement and shooting, and only once you are doing those things competently do you become at risk. And still Superhot does not patronise.
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The canon of introductory or "gateway" games has conflated ingratiation with simplicity and childishness. Rebellion against this culture's obnoxiousness has been misinterpreted into timidity and neutrality – rather than risk repeating the mistakes of gaming so far, and say or do something brash or offensive, from where I'm standing the makers of vestibule titles like Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Candy Crush and Unravel are saying nothing at all. As a result, video games, to the outside, must look in one form or another inconsequential – they're either hopelessly boisterous or utterly empty.
Superhot, though, is deliciously violent as it is mechanically simple. It will not dissuade newcomers with raucousness, nor will it deceive them with affected tranquillity. For anybody interested in one of modern culture's most marvellous grotesques, the shooting game, Superhot is an invaluable snapshot of the state of the genre. And for anyone interested in video games generally, it's a brutally honest introduction.
Superhot is out now for Windows and Mac, with an Xbox One version forthcoming.
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