Humanity review - endless imagination
Humanity is a puzzle game and, at times, quite a taxing one. At times like this, I like to dip into the menus and watch the video walkthrough for the particular level I'm stuck on. This is a lovely feature, but watching these videos is almost always a terrible mistake. That's because, laid bare in such a manner, the sheer amount of stuff you're doing in Humanity to solve a puzzle can quickly seem overwhelming. I have to do all that?! Instant brain freeze.
So at times like this, I shut off the walkthrough video more stumped than I was at the start. But then something magical happens. I return to the puzzle that has defeated me, and just start to tinker a bit. What if I did this, then that? What if I started by heading south instead of north? Now this is more like it. Suddenly I start to see where I'm going wrong, and I start to see, beyond that, what I will have to come to understand if I want to start going right. Humanity doesn't yield to tinkering, exactly, but I think the game wants you to be in a sort of playful state where all possibilities are valid. It's happy, even delighted, to let you solve puzzles by engaging with its mechanics for the sheer pleasure they hold in and of themselves. Through playfulness comes understanding. That's Humanity.
Let's go back a bit actually. Tetris Effect, the last Enhance published game I played, had a killer opening screen. Load it up and what do you get? A gold-tinged wind-blown feather of some kind, fluttering across the cosmos. Look closer and it might seem familiar. This, right, is Laniakea, Immeasurable Heaven, the galactic supercluster in which I'm typing this and you're reading, as we're all drawn, steadily, towards the Great Attractor.
That's a confident way to kick things off, and Humanity - well, Humanity starts with a variation on a theme, I guess. Load up the game and there we all are, but we aren't seen from a polite intergalactic distance anymore. Instead it's a mass of us, mingling, cludging, bashing together. It's a proper brownian motion of people, a crowd suspended in a bell jar. All of us people, wobbling back and forth, heroic, gormless, waiting to be told what to do.
Telling them what to do is what the game itself is about. Humanity, at its simplest, is a puzzle game about directing people to exits. They swam into 3D levels as a sort of human flood, an endless river heading forward until something makes them change their path. These people can be killed - dropped into the abyss, crushed by blocks - but it doesn't really matter. The river flows on, and there's generally - but not always - an endless supply of them. So get involved. Steer them. Divide them. Get them to weigh down pressure plates and push movable bits of the scenery around.
You do this in the form of a ghostly little dog who you can cursor around the place, listening to their delighted panting. As the dog, you can drop instruction disks onto tiles in each 3D level. Things start simply: a turn left tile, a turn right tile. Then you get jumps. Then different kinds of jumps. Then float tiles which will affect the nature of a jump. Then tiles that allow you to divide your endless river of humanity, turning puzzles into a sort of real-time strategy game.
Each level will set the kinds of tiles you can use, and sometimes limit you to a specific number. So maybe you have a level where you can only change directions. Maybe you have a level where you have three or four jumps to use and that's it, which means every gap, every change of height that you want your river of people to deal with, has to be very carefully thought out. Humanity gets an awful lot of fun out of just this. I can see the exit, and I know how to get there, but I don't know how to get there with what I have. So as god, as dog, I need to rethink, question my underlying principles. I need to work out what elegance looks like here.
This doesn't sound like fun now that I've written it down, but that's on me. In truth, even at this simple level, Humanity's carefully crafted challenges are often delight itself. The levels look like playground sculptures made from the kind of dark glossy stones Los Angeles banks are so fond of. The dog, and the crowds, are all delightfully comic or astonishingly horrific based on what's happening to them. It's a fascinating world to be in. And then Humanity starts to twist things.
There's a point with puzzle games where they must do this - they must add to the basics, hoping that additions add fun without destroying the clarity. Humanity does this in a couple of ways: new powers for you to use while directing your flock around, fine, but also gimmicks that show that almost everything in the design is considered a variable. Everything can be changed and messed around with by the puzzle makers. It's all learning!
Again, I haven't made this sound like fun, but it is! So. How about fans and moving walkways? How about those pressure switches and blocks you can climb and other blocks you can push? How about starting with just a few people and collecting more as you make your way to the exit? How about a whole suite of levels in which you have to place your markers in one go and must then sit back while humanity floods through, with you absolutely unable to change anything? How about the reverse of that, with levels where there are paths you must reprogramme on the fly - you guys go here, and now I'm changing the path so everyone behind you goes somewhere else instead? How about levels where there's so little in play you can barely see what's meant to happen? How about rival crowds? How about bosses? What about end gates which you need to unlock with special characters?
Throughout it all there are a couple of basics that remain untouched. Most levels have huge characters called Goldies scattered around who count as bonus objectives - get them to the exit and you work towards unlocking the final level of the current suite of challenges, lose them off a cliff and you might want to start over. There's also what I have started to think of as a Humanity mindset. This is a game about rivers of humans, which means it's also a game about queueing, and Humanity likes to see a nice, complicated queue snaking over the earth in improbable ways. I have thought a lot about loops, figure eights, oxbows while playing this game. I have thought about sequencing, which part of a puzzle to do first, which part to do next. At times, it reminds me of sheet music, with those first- and second-time bars. I haven't thought of those in about twenty years!
Cor, this is all lovely. And I need to tell you that outside of the campaign there's a level editor, which is terrifyingly powerful, and a near-endless supply of user-made levels to work through, many of which require thinking that is utterly, hopelessly beyond me. There's also a VR mode, which Ian will be writing about on Sunday. I haven't been able to test it.
And all the way through - that title. It's such a cognitive nailbomb, isn't it? Humanity. How seriously are we meant to take this? Are we here to guide or to observe? Is this a game about heroism or toil, or folly? Are we a god as well as a dog? And if so, what kind of god do we want to be? (And which kind of dog do we want to be?)
Much to think about then, and thankfully an awful lot of that thinking comes down to suites of generous, playful, do-it-your-way puzzles. Humanity, it turns out, is pretty great.