Humanity is a puzzle game that is quite difficult at times. At times like these, I like to dive into the menus and watch video tutorials for the particular level I’m stuck on. This is a great feature, but watching these videos is almost always a terrible mistake. That’s because, laid out like this, the sheer number of things you do in Humanity to solve a puzzle can quickly seem overwhelming. I have to do all this?! Instant brain freeze.
So at times like these, I turned off the manual even more than at the beginning. But then something magical happens. I go back to the puzzle that beat me and just start messing around a bit. What if I did this, then that? What if I started south instead of north? Now it looks more like it. Suddenly I begin to understand where I am going wrong and begin to see beyond that what I will have to understand if I want to start going right. Humanity is definitely not tinkerable, but I think the game wants you to be in some sort of game state where all possibilities are valid. It’s happy, even delighted, to let you solve puzzles using its mechanics for the pure fun of them. Through playfulness comes understanding. This is humanity.
Let’s actually go back a little. Tetris Effect, the last published Enhance game I played, had a killer splash screen. Download it and what do you get? Some feather with a golden hue, blown by the wind, flutters in space. Take a closer look and it might look familiar. This is indeed Laniakea, the Immeasurable Sky, the galactic supercluster in which I type this and you read, as we are all steadily drawn towards the Great Attractor.
It’s a surefire way to start things off, and Mankind – well, Mankind starts off with a variation on a theme, I guess. Load the game and we’re all there, but we’re no longer visible from a polite intergalactic distance. Instead, it is a mass of us who mix, collide, fight together. This is a proper Brownian motion of people, a crowd suspended in a bell. We’re all human, tottering back and forth, heroic, bloodless, waiting to be told what to do.
Telling them what to do is what the game is all about. At its simplest, Humanity is a puzzle game about guiding people to exits. They swam in the 3D level like a kind of human flood, an endless river flowing forward until something made them change course. These people can be killed – thrown into the abyss, crushed with blocks – but it does not really matter. The river flows on, and there are usually—but not always—infinite numbers. So get involved. Manage them. Separate them. Have them weigh pressure plates and push moving pieces of scenery.
You do this as a little ghost dog that you can hover over while listening to their enthusiastic breathing. As a dog, you can throw instruction discs at the tiles in each 3D level. It all starts out simple: left turn tile, right turn tile. Then you get the jumps. Then different types of jumps. Then there are floating tiles that will affect the nature of the jump. Then the tiles that let you split the endless river of humanity, turning the puzzles into something like real-time strategy.
Each level sets the types of tiles you can use and sometimes limits you to a certain number. So maybe you have a level where you can only change direction. Maybe you have a level where you have three or four jumps and everything, which means that every gap, every change in height that you want to deal with your river of people has to be very carefully thought out. Humanity derives great pleasure from this. I see a way out and I know how to get there, but I don’t know how to get there with what I have. Therefore, as a god, as a dog, I need to rethink, question my basic principles. I need to understand what elegance looks like here.
Now that I’ve written it down, it doesn’t sound like fun, but that’s my thing. In truth, even at this simple level, Humanity’s carefully crafted challenges are often satisfying. The levels look like playground sculptures, made of the dark, glossy stone that Los Angeles banks love so much. The dog and the crowd are all either wildly comical or surprisingly horrifying, depending on what happens to them. It’s a fascinating world to be in. And then humanity starts twisting things.
There’s a point in puzzle games where they have to do that – they have to add to the basics, hoping that the additions will add to the fun without destroying the clarity. Humanity does this in a number of ways: the new powers you can use to control your pack are good, but also the gimmicks that show that almost everything in the design is considered variable. Puzzle creators can change and confuse everything. It’s all learning!
Again, it didn’t sound fun, but it is! So. What about fans and moving tracks? What about those pressure switches and climbable blocks and other pushable blocks? How about starting with a few people and collecting more as you head for the exit? How about a whole set of levels where you have to place your markers in one move and then have to sit back while humanity pours in and you absolutely can’t change anything? What about the flip side, with levels where there are paths you have to reprogram on the fly – you guys go this way and now I’m going to change the path so everyone behind you goes somewhere else? What about levels where there’s so little acting that you can barely see what’s about to happen? How about a crowd of rivals? What about the bosses? What about the final gate that needs to be unlocked with special characters?
In all of this, there are a few fundamentals that remain intact. Scattered throughout most of the levels are huge characters called Goldies, and they count as bonus objectives. Get them to the exit and you work towards unlocking the last level of the current set of challenges, lose them off the cliff and you might want to start over. There is also what I have come to think of as humane thinking. It’s a game about rivers of people, which means it’s also a game about queues, and Mankind likes to see a nice, complex queue snaking its way over the land. I thought a lot about loops, eights, old women while playing this game. I was thinking about the sequence, which part of the puzzle to do first, which part to do next. Sometimes it reminds me of the notes with those measures of the first and second times. I haven’t thought about it in about twenty years!
Cor, that’s great. And I have to tell you, outside of the campaign, there’s a level editor that’s terrifyingly powerful, and an almost endless amount of user-created levels to work with, many of which require a mindset that’s completely, hopelessly beyond me. There is also a VR mode, which Ian will write about on Sunday. I have not been able to verify this.
And until the end – that title. It’s such a cognitive bomb, isn’t it? Humanity. How seriously should we take this? Are we here to guide or to observe? Is this a game about heroism, work or stupidity? Are we a god and also a dog? And if so, what kind of god do we want to be? (And what kind of dog do we want to be?)
Then there’s a lot to think about, and thankfully a lot of that thought comes down to a set of generous, playful do-it-yourself puzzles. Humanity, as it turns out, is quite large.
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