Logan Fieth says he didn’t necessarily set out to design games that toy with the boundaries of human perception — it just always ends up that way. “I kind of fell into it. I think it’s because I like when the games I work on can surprise me,” Fieth says, hot off the heels of his latest project, the first-person puzzler Superliminal by Pillow Castle Games.
A GIF showcasing some of Superliminal’s trippy mechanics — the ability to scale objects based on their distance from the player, along with a whole host of other interactive optical illusions — racked up 106,000 upvotes on Reddit the day after the game’s release. “I like when I literally can’t think about what the game I’m working on would be like until I put it in the game engine and start to see it,” Fieth, the game’s level designer, says.
Fieth’s games tend to have that same effect on players too. The levels he designs are hard to process until your eyes realize the trick he’s playing on you, and suddenly, everything clicks. The 2013 BA in Game Design graduate started tugging at this thread his sophomore year with his 2D game project, The Fourth Wall. Its design played with the way we perceive video games, allowing players to lock the screen and seamlessly walk around its edges to solve puzzles — a concept he expanded on further with his first post-graduate game, Four Sided Fantasy. His junior year game project, Perspective, ended up becoming one of DigiPen’s most downloaded games of all time by taking that mind-bending approach into 3D. Starring a character locked into 2D space, the first-person puzzler also handed players control of the camera in the 3D environment, making them find previously non-existent platforming pathways through forced perspective.
Not long after his junior game team launched Perspective, Fieth saw indie developer Albert Shih’s first tech demo for the game that would eventually become Superliminal. Another first-person puzzler playing with perspective in its own unique way, Fieth’s curiosity was piqued. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is pretty similar to Perspective. That’s cool,’” Fieth says. But the game’s second, more polished tech demo, which debuted a few years later on Polygon, is what really captured his interest. “It was obvious that it had a tone it was shooting for, and more than just puzzles, there were surprises in there too. I immediately could think about designing things for it beyond just puzzles, thinking about, ‘How does this feel? How can we surprise the player?’”
The game does indeed anchor its puzzles to a storyline, placing players in the shoes of a fictional patient in the SomnaSculpt Dream Therapy Program, a lucid dreaming experience meant to remind those struggling with doubt or anxiety that “perspective is everything.” After making contact with Shih, who was based in California at the time, Fieth quickly drew up a long list of puzzle ideas and game moments based on the project’s mechanics, pitching himself as a potential level designer. In 2016, after a brief stint working on the game on a trial, part-time basis, Fieth joined the project team as a full-time level designer.
“I wasn’t thinking about it this way during development, but a friend who played Superlminal described it afterwards as ‘dad jokes in gameplay form,’ which I really love,” Fieth laughs. “There are puzzles in there, but there are also moments that are almost gameplay puns or jokes, where right after you play through the moment, you go, ‘Oh, I get it. You got me!’” According to Fieth, he and Shih quickly found common ground in their shared sense of humor and their desire to subvert players’ expectations. From the design end, many of the game’s puzzles did, indeed, start with a joke. “Usually when I was designing, the best ideas I had were the ones I would laugh to myself about after I thought them up,” Fieth says. “Then I’d prototype them in Unity as quickly as I could to test them out and see if they worked. We figured if it got a chuckle or a shake of the head from a playtester, it was pretty good.”
So far, Fieth has gotten more than just a few chuckles. Eurogamer called it “a puzzling masterclass,” and The Washington Post wrote that it was “remarkably designed.” The game has also received praise from Night in the Woods designer Scott Benson, and was recently Twitch streamed by renowned indie game designer Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid and The Witness. “That was honestly kind of terrifying,” Fieth laughs.
The game has also received some noted comparisons to fellow first-person puzzler Portal, a game that originated from a DigiPen student project. It’s a comparison Fieth says he’s proud of given his own DigiPen roots. “I think as a design student at DigiPen, creating a puzzle game makes a lot of sense given the constraints you’re given, and I think that’s part of why making these kinds of games just feels natural to me now,” Fieth says. Even so, Fieth is glad the first impressions players get from the game seem to drop away as its surprises begin to reveal themselves. “As they get further into it, I’ve seen people on Twitch who initially compare it to Portal start going, ‘Wait, what is this game? It’s so weird!’” Fieth smiles. “I really like to see that response.”