Have you ever wondered what would happen if you woke up one morning to find out that you were a dog? That you were burdened with leading the human race through a maze of nonsense, directing them all towards some unknowable, glorious purpose. Humanity dares to ask that question and, as one of the headline games of May’s PlayStation Plus offering (which also includes Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart), it’s perhaps one of the most essential and generous titles I’ve had the pleasure of playing via the service all year.
Humanity, from the off, is Kafkaesque. But it’s more like Kafka by way of Lemmings, The Beatles’ 1968 film The Yellow Submarine, and Takeshi’s Castle. It’s a baffling mix of weird, wonderful, simple, and obtuse. It doesn’t try to do a lot, but it succeeds in everything it does.
If you get yourself in the mindset of Tetris Effect (another game from publisher Enhance), but maybe with a smidgen of Pikmin, and you’ll have a vague foundation for what Humanity is trying to do. You need to shepherd the endless mass of people through architecturally impossible – but very aesthetically pleasing – levels. They can die, all life is expendable, but as long as a certain quota reaches the goal, well done. Level won. Onto your next ethical dilemma.
Like all good puzzles, the true beauty of Humanity is in its blocks. Initially, the building blocks are simple: you can move the stream of people left, right, up, down. Then you’re given more blocks: jump, jump again, do a different kind of jump. But that’s not enough – you need more! So let’s split the humans into halves. Or have them push massive bits of scenery. Or swim, off the grid-like path that has made sense so far. By the time you feel barely competent as a guru-like spirit dog from the heavens, you’re carrying around so many blocks you don’t know if you’re going to be able to hold on if another one is given to you.
So you drop them all. And have to start assembling again, from scratch. It sounds aggravating, unfun. But it’s the opposite. It’s puzzle-lover catnip, an opiate for your wrangling of the masses. At almost all times, you can see your goal. But you’re never really sure how to get there. What a metaphor.
I think my favourite thing about Humanity is what it implies about our feckless race: that we’re a stubborn, blinkered mass of wandering idiots that’s too stupid or obstinate to travel the roads we need to walk without guidance. You, in your Shiba-Inu guise, need to funnel these faceless drones through life – helping them avoid pitfalls and save their souls from…. Whatever the hell is going on in this game.
It’s part Sixth Form philosophical musing, part 3D Lemmings for the PS5 era. And that’s fine. Humanity knows what it is. A beguiling brainteaser of a game designed to be enjoyed like a big book of crossword puzzles, not a TV box set you should sit and binge in one go. Reviewing this game was tricky, for that reason: I couldn’t just summon my ADHD superpower and hyperfocus my way through this in 20 hours. No, it’s not designed for that. Instead, Humanity wants to be masticated – chewed on and savoured for hours, days, weeks, months.
The puzzles are designed in such a way that, often, walking away and coming back will unclog your neural pathways and allow you to make better sense of the labyrinthine collection of souls and neo-brutalist walkways. Take a break, have a breather, come back. How many games promote that kind of behaviour, ey? These days, it’s all about engagement in video games – but Humanity wants to get in your head, not just your wallet.
I don’t think Humanity wants us to take it seriously. And yet, it’s probably the most serious puzzle game I’ve played in years. But so much of it comes off as sardonic, as tongue-in-cheek. Is it laughing with you, or laughing at you? Does the sheer weirdness of the set dressing make this obtuse puzzles more, or less, baffling? Is there supposed to be this lofty message baked into the core reason for this game’s existence, or am I just projecting my own pop philosophy onto this dumb video game?
These questions will float through your head as you play. You’ll eventually get the controls committed to muscle memory, and as you’re vainly trying to get that one last bonus gold person to the exit without plummeting to their death, you’ll have some ludicrous revelation about your place in your community, in society, in the world. Maybe. That’s the glory of Humanity: it occupies that noisy part of your brain so you get time and space to think about the important stuff. It’s an essential play for anyone that has so much as flirted with the puzzle genre before.
And it’s free as part of your PlayStation Plus Extra package. I can’t recommend it enough.