You walk through a gray world, but a sudden glimpse of red makes you pause. The world stops. You turn to face a crystalline red form down the street. As you aim your crosshairs on it, this enemy raises its handgun and fires at you. You stop, and the black bullet coming for you is frozen 10 feet away. You could fire back, taking out the red opponent before he moves, but then you may not be able to dodge the bullet hanging before you.
This game is called Superhot, out this week for PC and coming later this year for Xbox One. Like many first-person shooters, the goal is to take out your opponents. Unlike most first-person shooters, the world only moves when you do, with time stopping when you stop. And unlike most first-person shooters, the graphics are stripped of all distractions. All that’s left: raw violence.
“Gray, red, and black was in Superhot from its inception. It’s about sending a clear, simple message; the red guys are the enemies. Shoot them. I loved it from the get go and worked hard to not divert much from it,” Marcin Surma, Superhot‘s art director, says in an interview.
It’s in stark contrast to the photorealism that most of the video game industry strives for today. The rooms and streets of Superhot are white and gray. Within this stark setting, enemies that appear cut from gleaming red glass dash out to defeat you. They do not hide in shadows, they do not get lost in a crowd of other people in colorful clothes. They stand out instantly, immediately requiring your attention. And your body and your weapons are black set against the white world–along with other objects that you can interact with (also in black).
The simplicity of the graphics can be traced back to the origin of the game. Superhot was originally born out of the 7 Day First Person Shooter gamejam in August 2013. Director Piotr Iwanicki and a handful of game developers put together a short experience in just a week. Using less realistic graphics gave them more time to work on game mechanics. They then decided to turn it into a full game. Surma knew Iwanicki and was asked to work on the gamejam, but could not. But Surma joined the team afterward to work on the final game. Superhot raised just over $250,000 on Kickstarter in May 2014 to develop the title.
As production to turn the limited experience into a complete game began, Surma decided to stick with the design simplicity of the original version. It would remain in red, white, and black.
“I knew I wanted to keep the broad strokes, especially since it already was quite a recognizable look, and work within those constraints,” says Surma. “The first iterations of the crystal characters had a face. It gave too much of a definition to the enemy and soon after I streamlined the model to give them a faceless look, much more in line with what they are–generic representations of people, a bit like 3-D versions of stick figures.”
The decision to use the limited colors and character models has more than a visual impact. It fundamentally changes the nature of a shooter. All distraction falls away. The player focuses solely on firing black bullets at red enemies moving in a white world.
The unique mechanic of time only moving when the player does turns this twitchy world into a game of strategy. You pause to decide which direction to run as you dodge a bullet or to reach for a gray obstacle to use as cover as you shoot whichever of the red enemies. These choices made, you have to suddenly leap into motion, bringing the world back to life, and see if your strategy works, and you survive.
“The most important thing for me was to have the visuals and art design add to the game and help the gameplay, not to be just a layer of presentation that could be swapped for any other. I needed it to benefit both the team during the production, and the players during their play.” says Surma.
The simple design ethos extends to the mechanics of the game, too. There is no Heads-Up Display while you play, no indication of ammo left in a gun, no countdown until when you can’t shoot and have to just toss the empty handgun at an enemy to distract him. There is also no health bar–you die in one hit. The lack of HUD leaves the player completely focused on one thing: getting the bad enemy.
The stylized graphics are rationalized as a game within the game; that is, the shooting game of Superhot is presented as a pirated computer game in the story. So the UI outside of the levels, and much of the storytelling, happens in a low-resolution computer interface rendered as if on an old monochromatic monitor.
“I was aching to do something in the vein of the ’90s Amiga computers I grew up with, and with this in mind, I imagined Superhot as a virtual reality system that could’ve been made three decades ago,” Surma says. “It was hard convincing Piotr, who grew on MS-DOS, and in the end the menu became this ‘Norton Commander’ console thing.”
So players explore this faux-Amiga and exchange private messages on a text-based forum with the friend who sent you the game within the game. Then they have scene after scene of tactical gunplay in an emphatically colorful setting. The action is both visceral and cerebral, presented in such a streamlined way, you can’t help but become immersed in this hyper violent world of guns and glass, all without a single drop of blood being spilled.
“It’s all about contrast,” Surma says. “How red and black plays against the white. How shiny crystal plays against porous concrete. How high-resolution gameplay contrasts with the character matrix of the menu. And, how seemingly high-brow visuals play against the brutal gameplay and dark overtones of the story.”