SUPERHOT VR and the Effects of Immersion

By Ivan Messias

Immersion in Storytelling

Immersion into other worlds has been a longstanding tenet of storytelling: in order for a story to be palatable to others, the creator must immerse the audience to some degree in the world that they are presenting. The pursuit of immersion in a story was most notably expressed in The Matrix (1999), where humans are placed into a story that seemed real enough to the point of believing that it was reality. While it was used for ulterior motives within the film, the concept of a world that realistic bred, and still breeds even today, a fascination within the mind – the intriguing concept of being fully part of a world besides reality. SUPERHOT, released in early 2016, was a further extension of this – the story revolved around the player becoming more and more immersed into this world, ending with the player shooting their character in order to become part of SUPERHOT itself.

Virtual reality technology was essentially designed with the pursuit of immersion in mind, advancing immersion beyond simply sight and audio – allowing for a literal hands-on experience, with the motion of the body being the form of input into the simulated world. It represented the next leap forward in storytelling immersion – and SUPERHOT was keen to import its story into this format, with SUPERHOT VR being released later in 2016.

To my surprise, after watching a few playthroughs of SUPERHOT VR to see what I missed in the story, I discovered that what I played through myself was New Game Plus, and the story itself had already been told. The story itself proved to be as in-depth as, if not more than, the original SUPERHOT, largely due to the immersive qualities to be had in a VR environment. As such, each story scene will be dissected herein in order to define and understand SUPERHOT’s interpretation of the future of immersion.

Scene 0: piOS

The first “scene” shown in the game is that of an operating system booting up in order to play SUPERHOT: specifically piOS, with the tagline of “operating system of the future (TM)“. This is followed by several screens in a grid being filled with static, prior to the player’s perspective being forced through the center screen and transitioning into the tutorial.

This is not so much a scene as much as it is a brief glimpse into the game’s meta-narrative. This is the first of three (possibly four*) layers of immersion, notable for being the one with zero player agency. There are no inputs required or available save for the motion of looking at the screens, with the implication that this is the player. With this in mind, the OS’s tagline serves not only as a subtle reminder that this is, indeed, a piece of science-fiction, but also as a prediction of what future technology could hold in terms of storytelling immersion.

*This is dependent on whether the person looking into the real-life headset is counted as a layer of immersion.

Scene 1: DEDICATION

After a few levels, the player is placed in a white void, with the words “ARE YOU READY TO PLAY?” and “SHOW YOUR DEDICATION” respectively appearing in front of the player as the player is presented and picks up a gun. As the player shoots themselves in the head, the headset flies off of the person, showing a previously-unseen office space, where four computer monitors are displaying the words “SUPER” and “HOT” on a loop.

This is the first time that the player is shown a perspective outside of the core gameplay. From a gameplay point of view, there is no point to this room, and nothing to interact with save for a floppy disk that loads up more of the game. From an immersive point of view, however, it is a great help in that it presents a sort of “reality” to contrast with the surreal nature of the game up to this point. It provides a grounding point for the player, and while it may not be entirely convincing as a stand-in for real life, the reveal that so far the player has been playing in a headset in-universe does wonders in establishing a link between the body of the person and that of the actual player, using the headset as a bridging point between both forms.

Scenes 2 & 3: Hardware and Software

At the end of the level “Helipad”, a helicopter crashes into the player, killing them and again forcing the headset off of the person in the office. The screens in the office now say “rebooting” and “hardware error” (hardware only appearing for a brief moment).

A few more levels down the line, the player is placed at the edge of a broken window in a high-rise, with “SHOW YOUR COMMITMENT” in front of them as they look down and jump out of the building, once more resulting in the headset being forced off of the head of the person in the office. Along with some messages commending their dedication and potential, as the player grabs the floppy this time, the screens display “BODIES ARE DISPOSABLE”, “MIND IS SOFTWARE”, and the signature alternations of “SUPER” and “HOT”.

The final messages not only present the idea that the mind is transferrable, but that the previously-mentioned hardware error was a failing in the body, and each scene up to this point has reinforced this idea. In each one, the player has died, but the mind has remained to pick up another body. This also leads to the questioning of which body the player’s mind is inhabiting at any given time: is it the one that can slow down time in the levels, the one in the office, or the one currently holding two sticks to control them? The constant shifting between the second and third layers of immersion starts to break down the barrier between the mind of the player and the links to any particular body form; indeed, is not one mind controlling all three, going between them at any given moment? The notion of the mind being software leaves it free to traverse between any of them at any given time, which the player has been doing this entire time.

Scenes 4 & 5: Pyramids and Body Blending

The next two scenes are similar in nature, both featuring text urging the player to reach and destroy a pyramid, as a sign of their worth for an unspecified reward. The most significant aspect of this is how it begins to further break down the links between bodies, as the headset flies off of the office-dweller without any input or death required from the player. Furthermore, the disks gain different properties: in the first scene, one of the player’s hands becomes the disk, only briefly reappearing to put the disk inside the computer; in the second, the disk has to be inserted not into the computer, but rather into the player’s head, an action which briefly causes the office to gain the graphic simplicity of the main game and does not require the player to don the headset in order to go to the next level.

The first scene serves as more of a breakdown in what can be defined as a body, with the hand-floppy leading to a quiet contemplation of what a body has to exactly be, prior to going back into the game. The second is far more blatant, with the world of the person in the office becoming increasingly tied to that in the “game”, mirroring the blending of the perceptions held by the person in real life to that of the game world. The headset randomly popping off of the head in-game, without any requirement of input, further solidifies this, as the lack of “disposal” of the body in the game being necessary to trigger the headset disconnect makes it seem as though the office character and the game character are the same, especially as the office briefly resembles a level.

Scenes 6 & 7: SUPER HOT

Following the final level, in which the player destroys a large pyramid, the headset once more flies off of the character, and a face greets him on the monitors, saying that he did well, and ordering him to answer his knocking door. There is a small pyramid there, which opens to reveal a gun. As he says “Collect your reward”, the office character shoots himself in the head, mirroring the cause of the first true scene. There is now a black void, with “SUPER”, “HOT” flashing within. As the words stop flashing the player is transported back to the office, lit in red, with the screens saying “ONE / OF / US”, “YOU ARE NOW FREE”, “TO REPLAY SUPERHOT VR”, “FOREVER”, activating NG+. The hands in the office are now the same as the ones in the game. There are notes reminding the player that “Mind is software”.

Conclusions

SUPERHOT is a game about transhumanism, and SUPERHOT VR serves to enhance that experience for the player by allowing their own journey into this world. Instead of shooting the person in the headset, the player is the one in the headset. They are the ones that ascend and move between bodies. As they play the game, they bear witness to the disposability of bodies, and their mind is the software that moves between them.

Photo Credit

Playthrough used for screenshots: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QGKbGxBBDIw

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