Lead a river of humans through intricate levels in this delightful, ingenious and bountiful puzzle game.
Humanity is a puzzle game and, at times, quite trying. At times like this, I like to dive into the menus and watch the walkthrough video for the particular level I’m stuck on. It’s a nice feature, but watching these videos is almost always a terrible mistake. That’s because, laid bare in this way, the amount of stuff 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 this, I turned off the walkthrough video more perplexed than when I started. But then something magical happens. I go back to the puzzle that beat me and just start tinkering around a bit. What if I did this, then that? What if I started by heading south instead of north? Now it’s more like that. Suddenly, I’m starting to see where I’m going wrong, and I’m starting to see, beyond that, what I’ll have to figure out if I’m going to start getting well. Humanity doesn’t give in to tinkering, exactly, but I think gaming wants you to be in a kind of playful state where all possibilities are valid. It’s happy, even thrilled, to allow you to solve puzzles by engaging with its mechanics for the sheer pleasure they provide in and of themselves. Through playfulness comes understanding. It is Humanity.
Let’s go back a bit actually. Tetris Effect, the last released Enhance game I played, had a killer opening screen. Charge it and what do you get? A kind of feather tinged with gold blown by the wind, floating through the cosmos. Take a closer look and it might look familiar. This, on the right, is Laniakea, the Immeasurable Sky, the galactic supercluster that I am typing this in and you are reading about, as we are all drawn, steadily, towards the Grand Attractor.
It’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 we’re all there, but no longer seen from a polite intergalactic distance. Instead, it’s a mass of us, mingling, clumping together, bumping into each other. It’s a real Brownian movement of people, a crowd suspended in a bell. All of us, teetering back and forth, heroically, throatless, waiting to be told what to do.
Telling them what to do is the object of the game itself. Humanity, in its simplest form, is a puzzle game about directing people to exits. They swam through 3D levels like a sort of human flood, an endless river that moves forward until something makes them change course. These people can be killed – thrown into the abyss, crushed by blocks – but it doesn’t really matter. The river is flowing and there is usually – but not always – an inexhaustible amount of it. So get involved. Direct them. Divide them. Ask them to weigh down the pressure plates and push the moving elements of the scenery.
You do this in the form of a ghostly little dog that you can parade around the place, listening to their delighted panting. As a dog, you can drop instruction discs on tiles in each 3D level. Things start simple: one tile turn left, one tile turn right. Then you get jumps. Then different types of jumps. Then float tiles that will affect the nature of a jump. Then, tiles that allow you to divide your endless river of humanity, turning the puzzles into a kind of real-time strategy game.
Each level will define the types of tiles you can use and sometimes limit you to a specific 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 to use and that’s it, which means every gap, every change in height that you want your stream of people to face, has to be very carefully thought out . Humanity derives enormous pleasure from this. I 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 a god, as a dog, I need to rethink, to question my underlying principles. I have to figure out what elegance looks like here.
It doesn’t sound like fun now that I’ve written it, but it’s on me. In truth, even at this simple level, Humanity’s carefully crafted challenges often delight themselves. The levels look like playground sculptures made from the kind of dark, shiny stones that the banks of Los Angeles are so fond of. The dog and the mobs are all delightfully comical or surprisingly gruesome depending on what happens to them. It’s a fascinating world. And then Humanity begins to distort things.
There’s a point with puzzle games where they have to – they have to add to the basics, hoping that the additions add fun without destroying clarity. Humanity does this in several ways: new powers that you can use while leading your herd, great, but also gadgets that show that almost everything in design is considered a variable. Everything can be changed and modified by puzzle makers. Everything is learned!
Again, I didn’t make it sound funny, but it is! SO. What about fans and treadmills? How about those pressure switches and blocks you can climb and other blocks you can push? How about starting with a few people and collecting more as you head out? How about a whole suite of levels where you have to place your markers all at once and then have to sit around while humanity pours in, with absolutely nothing you can change? How about the reverse of that, with levels where there are paths you have to reprogram on the fly – you 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 play you can barely see what’s supposed to be happening? How about rival mobs? And the bosses? What about the end doors you need to unlock with special characters?
Throughout it all, there are a few basics that remain intact. Most levels have huge characters called Goldies scattered around that count as bonus objectives – take them to the exit and you work to unlock the final level of the current challenge suite, lose them off a cliff and you might want to start over. There’s also what I’ve come to think of as a Humanity mindset. It’s a game about rivers of humans, which means it’s also a game about queuing, and humanity likes to see a beautiful, complicated queue meandering across the earth in improbable ways. I thought about loops, figure eights, rainbows a lot while playing this game. I thought about sequence, which part of a puzzle to do first, which part to do next. Sometimes it reminds me of sheet music, with those first and second bars. I hadn’t thought of that for twenty years!
Humanity Accessibility Options
Option to remap most buttons and toggle time control buttons from ‘hold’ to ‘on and off’. Can turn off a number of visual effects for clarity. Solution videos for each puzzle.
Cor, this is all lovely. And I have to tell you, apart from the campaign, there’s a level editor, which is awfully powerful, and an almost endless supply of user-created levels, many of which require thought that is totally, hopelessly beyond me. There’s also a VR mode, which Ian will talk about on Sunday. I couldn’t test it.
And all along – this title. It’s a real cognitive bomb, isn’t it? Humanity. How seriously are we supposed to take this? Are we there to guide or to observe? Is it a game about heroism, toil or madness? Are we as much a god as a dog? And if so, what kind of god do we want to be? (And what kind of dog do we want to be?)
There’s a lot to think about then, and thankfully much of that thinking comes down to generous, playful, do-it-yourself puzzle sequels. Humanity, it turns out, is quite large.
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