One of Us: The Narrative of SUPERHOT

Note: The following article contains major spoilers for SUPERHOT.

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When I started playing SUPERHOT, the last thing I expected was that I'd get sucked into the story, but that's what happened. The game features play which you want to return to again and again, and as it turns out, that's not just for the sake of entertainment. This piece of media needs to be compelling because its story is about being compelled to interact with computers and computer games. In SUPERHOT, we play a software pirate whose friend transfers them a crack of superhot.exe, a virtual reality game of mysterious origin. In each of its levels, we take control of a stranger, kill everyone else on the map, and leave. There is no immediately apparent narrative in or connection between these stages. As the story progresses, it implies that superhot.exe is not a game and that it has us possess peoples' bodies somewhere in the real world. Meanwhile, a consciousness called "The System" attempts to dissuade the protagonist from playing by breaking the game, altering the text of messages they send to friends, and more.

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Our worst fears are confirmed when one level has the protagonist visit their real-life bedroom and punch themselves in the head, causing them head trauma outside the game. If that wasn't bad enough, the main character literally cannot resist the urge to keep playing superhot.exe. Various levels of the shooter have no kill targets at all and just have you standing in a prison cell as the program rehearses a speech about you falling under its command. You'll also notice that at the end of each level, the game gives you the prompt to click or press A to "hand over control". Eventually, The System stops interfering with your terminal and lets you binge superhot.exe. During the closing scene, you upload your mind to a supercomputer to merge with The System and execute your original body with a handgun. It's at this point that you find that The System is a hivemind of users who've completed the game, and the collective gives you the real-world mission to recruit more SUPERHOT players for it to ensnare. You're told not to reveal the hypnotic nature of the program but to contact your friends with the phrase "SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter I've played in years".

If you manage to find all the collectables in the game, then you also get privileged access to an IRC server called "#hacking" where you can see The System secretly feeding the chat moderator instructions on how to envelop more people into The System. It tells the moderator to send the first few levels of superhot.exe to those who show interest but to stop anyone discussing the program by name. It also has them discourage new users from playing the game. It's only if users remain tenacious and stubborn in their quest to acquire superhot.exe that they're sent the full experience which addicts them entirely and has them assimilated into The System.

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We could talk about SUPERHOT's story as an allegory for how developers bend the player to their will, similar to how we typically discuss Bioshock, but that interpretation wouldn't account for the "hivemind" villain or the addiction that wracks the protagonist. SUPERHOT's story is about the main character's loss of psychological freedom, but less through their capitulation to a virtual director and more through two unhealthy kinds of interaction users can have with their computers. The first of these is addictive consumption of video games. That's not to say that "video game addiction" is necessarily a distinct, classifiable mental illness; psychologists struggle to present a list of symptoms that would constitute video game addiction that isn't so broad as to be unusable. However, video games consuming peoples' lives is something that happens, and SUPERHOT's horror is the horror of that consumption.

It's barely subtext: The protagonist says, without any obfuscation, that they can't stop themselves from playing this video game; they're trapped in front of their PC. That sentiment is backed up by the prompt to "hand over control" at the end of the levels, the jail cell scenes, and even the hypnotic repetition of the words "Super" and "Hot" when you clear each stage. The game tries to convey the mindset of addiction by giving you an experience that provides regular reward spikes, but none the less seems wrong, even if you can't put your finger on why at first. For me, the scenes that best visualise this illness are when the protagonist visits themselves using proxy bodies. The character sits still as a statue in front of their monitors, transfixed by the game. In the end, they literally annihilate themselves through their attachment to superhot.exe with the shooting mechanics reinforcing the violence in that loss of self. SUPERHOT's box art may also depict the destruction of the protagonist's body and reference the theme of their mental disintegration.

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In the gaming community, we're often reluctant to discuss how the hobby could be detrimental to our health. Some of that reluctance is down to video game discussion spaces traditionally being used to solely debate how well games work as escapism and any suggestion of "problematic" content being branded as a buzzkill. The other factor is that most of the people we've seen talking about unhealthy attachments to video games are the people who also claim that playing Grand Theft Auto instils a deep-seated urge to go on killing sprees and have called for politicians to legislate as though that were true. But we've created spaces for discussions about video games that go beyond how much personal satisfaction they give us into conversations about how they cater to certain demographics or what they mean symbolically. Unhealthy attachment to video games is a topic that can and should have its own space. Not that SUPERHOT is really "discussing" the issue, but its story is playing one of the most important roles any horror can: conveying the discomfort around a taboo social phenomenon.

The second unhealthy interaction that SUPERHOT expresses anxiety over is the recruitment of people into toxic online communities. This meaning doesn't become as apparent until you see the ugly secret behind #hacking. First, some context: Over the past several years, we've seen the rise of toxic online communities involved in harassment campaigns and far-right politics. These groups often maintain a facade of reasonability to any onlookers and won't talk externally about their intended goals or will disavow the very harassment that benefits them, but internally, they thrive on abuse, exclusion, and poaching the young and vulnerable, with an active interest in expanding their numbers. These communities are highly reliant on shows of in-group solidarity and meme posting. "Newbies" are often hazed, and it's only once individuals have shown some receptiveness to these communities' ideas that they're fed the more extreme "truths" behind them. Those members of the community are then used to recruit more people, and the larger the community, the more dangerous they become.

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When SUPERHOT first exposes us to the #hacking server, it appears as an irreverent but harmless hangout spot for lonely technophiles. It's only once we become part of The System and get our admin eyes that we can see it as a pond in which The System fishes for new members and this community operates very much like the real ones I've just described. There's a user who identifies the server's regulars as part of the "PC master race", and when the clueless mother of one of the members starts typing into the chat box, the users don a mask of support and empathy until she leaves. Twice, self-identified newbies enter the chat and are bullied out of it, although one of them, a twelve-year-old, is suspected by The System to be susceptible to superhot.exe and so it instructs the mod to send them the program. Yet, the mod also makes sure that the users never get within sniffing distance of the server's real purpose: to distribute superhot.exe.

It may seem that SUPERHOT has stashed most of its story in the server logs, slightly out of sight of most players, but #hacking just puts into words and gives a social context to much of what we've already experienced. The System baited us with a few levels, hazed us and tried to exclude us from the game, provided us more play when we showed interest, accepted us into the fold, and told us to expand The System. All in that order. These events can only be adequately explained after the fact because it is part of the trap of superhot.exe that its victims don't know they're being trapped. SUPERHOT also correctly identifies that these kinds of communities are not just potentially dangerous to the outsiders they prey upon, but also frequently create distress in their ranks.

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This game and its twist wouldn't be nearly as fascinating if we went in with the knowledge that this was a horror game or that it was about addiction or being recruited into toxic online communities beforehand; a lot of its punch is in that its hidden horror. The SUPERHOT Team were able to keep the darker and more uncomfortable experiences in the game under wraps not just because they excluded the narrative scenes from demos of the game, but also because there are reliable reactions the gaming community has to action games. We're used to action titles being not much more than a statement that shooting and hitting people is fun, and the big name game reviewers aren't usually conducting symbolic postmortems of such experiences. In fact, the editor who reviewed SUPERHOT for IGN didn't seem to understand that its references to mind uploading and thought control were anything more than "nonsensical [...] hacker hyperbole". So we weren't expecting a critical lecture from SUPERHOT on the nature of addiction and online communities, we were expecting a tessellated John Woo film, and The System could get us hook, line, and sinker.

In retrospect, Team SUPERHOT had been recruiting us into The System from the earliest previews. In #hacking, the server moderator acts as the ring-leader in a chat ritual where the users collectively alternate the words "Super" and "Hot" over and over. It's comparable to the call-and-response use of memes on many message boards, and as we learn from The System, this is one way it hypnotises its victims. Every online community has its inside jokes, and while most aren't anything more than jokes, these communities often use memes as a form of propaganda and to cement the sense of a group. And we'd been repeating "Super Hot, Super Hot" over and over for months before the game came out. The words are echoed so rhythmically at the end of every level that it's hard not to join in.

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SUPERHOT also exploits our interactions outside the game by giving us a dog whistle to use at the end of the story mode. A note on dog whistles: When a toxic community tries to canvas new members, they often won't come out with a public invitation to commit harassment or bigotry; that's bad optics and scares people off. What members usually do is use a coded invitation that presents some enticing opportunity to their intended targets while also signalling to other members of the in-group that they're an ally. So a white supremacist won't come out and say "Who wants to advocate for genocide?", they'll write something like "Why is it wrong to be proud of your heritage?" or something equally as indirect. superhot.exe tells us not to alert other people to its brainworm nature, but to instead send our real-world friends the phrase "SUPERHOT is the most innovative shooter I've played in years". It's the kind of sentence fragment that's bold yet unimaginative enough that you wouldn't blink an eye seeing it used across multiple Steam reviews. However, the game has you use it purely to stick new players to SUPERHOT's flypaper while giving those who've completed the game and are part of The System a calling card with which to wink and nod at each other.

The ending of SUPERHOT establishes a roleplay for fans of the game going ahead, but there is something underhanded about it as well. The game encourages its players to send their friends a misleading phrase about its quality for marketing purposes. While we commit to a lot of ethically unacceptable actions in the safety of the fiction, here's one that SUPERHOT asks us to carry out outside of it. Although for the record, I think this genuinely is the most innovative shooter I've played in years; not the best, but the one working furthest outside the box. SUPERHOT, like many action games trying to deliver some sort of philosophical commentary, may also be guilty of glamorising the concepts it's claiming to condemn. It aims to simulate game addiction and indoctrination, but arguably, it treats these serious topics with all the frivolity of cool slow-motion shootouts. However, there's also an argument that this is the only way for SUPERHOT to simulate its sicknesses.

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We're used to games being emotionally self-contradicting. For example, many have characters make the statement that war is hell while also giving us play that suggests that armed conflict is exciting and rewarding. But SUPERHOT is depicting compelling, if toxic, interactions we have with technology, and using compelling gameplay to describe them. The reason that people being sucked into malicious communities is an issue is that, with the right mindset, it's tempting to interact with those communities, and the reason that game addiction happens is that you get a little dopamine release every time you complete a level in a game. Unlike the hypocritical anti-war games, SUPERHOT ignites in us the real emotions that someone in the protagonist's situation would feel, at least, when interacting with the game. The play doesn't simulate the adverse side-effects of addiction or the full range of emotional consequences of being part of an internet hivemind; it only recreates the flashes of positivity, and through that myopia, it fails to capture the full picture of what it's like to be an addict or someone in an abusive online clique.

SUPERHOT is the rare game that suggests that what feels good and that what is good for us are frequently not the same thing. While games like Bioshock and Spec Ops: The Line may have explored how video games can control us, it's also not like they suggested this control might have negative consequences outside of the fictional world. SUPERHOT very much is suggesting that, and in a world where it often feels like pulling teeth trying to get people to confront toxicity in their communities, SUPERHOT shows cognisance of it. That's worth kudos. Thanks for reading.

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