For all the running about and murdering people that games ask us to do, it's disappointingly rare that shooters ask us to do it in anything more than the humdrum, put-the-bullets-in-the-man kind of way. Year on year, blockbuster shooters give us slightly newer, slightly louder toys to point at yet more waves of foreign baddies, but at their core the games are basically the same: terrorists, vehicle sections, rat-a-tat, boom.
Sometimes a game comes along that bucks the trend: Portal turned first-person shooting into a stomach-turning physics-em-up, while its semi-predecessor Half-Life 2 introduced fans to the joys of crushing alien footsoldiers with gravitationally-propelled toilets. And while Superhot, an indie FPS that crushed its $100,000 Kickstarter goal in a day, doesn't offer wormhole-tearing space catapults or gravity-harnessing detritus-cannons, its central mechanic is unique: so long as you're standing still, time stands still with you.
Here's how it works: you're a lone wolf dropped into a world filled with tight corridors, sparse cover and lots of angry orange men who want to kill you. You're outnumbered and perpetually low on ammunition, but you've got one critical advantage: so long as you're not moving in a direction (spinning on the spot is fine) or firing a weapon, time slows to a standstill, freezing enemies in place and bullets in mid-air. This gives you all the time in the world to navigate a deadly firefight – bullets kill in one hit, but so long as you freeze the instant you hear a gunshot or spot a muzzle flash in your peripheral vision, you can turn, observe the bullets' trajectories, and duck and dodge out of their way like a first-person Neo from The Matrix.
It sounds like a cheat code from the early 2000s, but in truth, Superhot – at least in its current playable protoype form – is stiffly punishing. Toe-to-toe with a single villain you've got the upper hand – weaving in between projectiles and sending your own spinning back in reply – but trapped in a room with enemies on all sides and oncoming bullets can trap you in a killzone or catch you by surprise as you run from cover-to-cover. Superhot is far from brainless; it's a visually flashy puzzle game with guns – or as the developers put it: "like chess, but except all the pawns are there to murder you."
"Superhot offers a lot of spectacle, which makes it interesting to the action fanbase," Luke Spierewka, Superhot's self-designated 'codemangler' (programmer) tells Red Bull. "But thanks to our puzzle-like gameplay mechanic that doesn’t rely on twitch reactions, the game is also approachable to people who don’t normally play shooters. It’s always great to hear someone who’s not an avid gamer saying that they really liked our demo."
A big part of Superhot's appeal lies in its simplicity. Its rules are simple to pick up, and while there will be a story (and some sort of explanation as to why and how its hero picked up his time-bending superpower), it's not one that the developers are talking openly about right now, beyond a promise on the Kickstarter page that it will be a "solid, interesting campaign built around a carefully constructed, not overly in-your-face story" and that the game will be "more than just a shooter with a gimmick". But how do you tell a story with faceless orange men that speak only in gunshots and flesh wounds?
"We’ll focus on environmental storytelling and giving context via the player’s actions and the messages displayed during the playthrough," says Spierewka, referring latterly to the text messages that flash up throughout the demo to convey objectives ("TAKE HIM DOWN") and things like ammo status ("I'M EMPTY").
"My personal favorite is the 'DEAL IS OFF' level from the original prototype," he says. "Just by placing the [player] in front of a table and displaying this simple message, the player’s mind does half of the work for us, imagining a mafia deal gone wrong or a lone assassin on a contract mission."
DEAL IS OFF begins with the player staring down a lone enemy across a table. A handgun is falling end-over-end in slow motion. The player rushes forward, grabs it, and gets off the first shot. But as the first enemy falls, others rush in from all sides and start shooting, filling the air with bright red bullet trails as you dodge, fire and snatch up weapons off fallen foes as your own run dry of bullets. It's only a prototype level, but it feels potently filmic, like choreographing a Hollywood action sequence in 3D. That's not a coincidence:
"Remaking movie scenes is kinda tricky, because the first-person nature of Superhot doesn’t allow us to experiment with fancy camera work," Spierewka says. "We can’t just copy and paste [action movie scenes] into the game, because it wouldn’t feel the same. Instead, we’re aiming to recreate the vibe of the scene: how a rooftop fight would feel if you were in the middle of it, how to make a subway shootout interesting [and so on]."
The prototype isn't perfect. There's no ammo counter, for example, which combined with its handguns' pifflingly small magazine cap can lead to some mad scrabbling around a level looking for a replacement weapon while baddies pew-pew-pew at you from all angles. But the finished game, in typical puzzle game style, is promised to offer more variation: new weapons – including a shotgun that sprays multiple pellets in slow motion – and new movement abilities to unlock as players progress.
"The easiest example is the katana," says Spierewka. "It requires you to get up close and personal, and it can’t be used to kill enemies from a distance. However, in exchange it gives you the means to defend yourself by cutting bullets [out of the air Metal Gear Solid-style], which means that [you can] pass through narrow corridors that don’t allow you to dodge left and right. We want the other weapons to influence the game in similar ways."
"We’re [also] looking into creating small prototypes that allow the player to run on walls and slide along the floor. It’s not really a question of time and money; it’s about whether implementing different movement styles actually improves the gameplay instead of making it less fun (and harder to design)."
Superhot's success came at an important time for crowdfunded games. While Kickstarter has had its indie successes, it's also grown in two years into a place for gaming's big names – your Tim Schafers and your Brian Fargos – to drum up millions of dollars in funding for spiritual sequels to games that already have fanbases in the millions of players. By comparison, Superhot's announcement was picked up by dozens of sites and flew past its funding goal in a 24-hour blur – despite its comparatively humble beginnings and lack of industry star-power.
"I feel like it’s a combination of several factors," Spierewka says of Superhot's Kickstarter success. "The main one of course is having an interesting project – if the concept of 'time moves only when you move' didn’t capture people’s attention, we wouldn’t be where we are now. The other huge factor was releasing a low-barrier-of-entry prototype. When gamers heard about Superhot, they could instantly play it in their web browsers – without paying, without making an account anywhere. Just click and play."
"Even if the people behind [a project] are relatively unknown, as long as the project and campaign are good enough and the game itself caters to certain niches, they should get enough money for development – Hyper Light Drifter, Hover: Revolt of Gamers and Gods Will Be Watching are good examples of that."
As for the big-name developers raking in the millions for their own projects, Spierewka feels none of the indie territorial defensiveness that sometimes rears its head in the discussion of who Kickstarter is really for. Where crowdfunding's most successful projects are sometimes criticised for pulling attention away from the smaller independents that really need crowdfunding, Spierewka sees Kickstarter as a place where games like Broken Age and Superhot can co-exist happily.
"It’s not like these experienced developers [like Fargo and Schafer] didn’t need Kickstarter," he says. "Projects like Torment: Tides of Numenera or Broken Age would never have been funded without the support of fans. Of course the popularity of these designers makes it easier for them to get funded successfully (overfunded, even) – but that doesn’t mean they overshadow smaller developers."
Superhot ended its 30-day funding run at a smidge over $250,000 – or $150,000 over its starting target. That extra money buys an additional speedrun mode, a replay button, more challenges and an additional 3D animator to make its neon villains' death throes all the more theatrical. And while the June 2015 release date is a way off (a beta is planned for between six and 12 months time) you can get a taste of what's piqued our interest by playing the prototype in your browser here. You'll never look at a chessboard the same way again.
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