I grew up on quirky, out-of-the-box Japanese puzzle games like Intelligent Qube, Devil Dice, and Katamari Damacy. Within their own universe of wacky rules, they were challenging and innovative, almost something out of a Japanese game show. Revealed during PlayStation’s State of Play back in February this year, Humanity squarely follows in their footsteps. Developer tha ltd., a design company based in Tokyo that creates all sorts of interactive media, and designer Tetsuya Mizuguchi, of Rez and Tetris Effect: Connected, have created something unusual, absurd, and strangely brilliant from what I’ve played so far. I mean, how else do you describe a game about a shiba inu barking orders at human lemmings?
What a cute herding dog
Despite the rather abstract, offbeat, and conceptual trailers for Humanity, the game is actually simpler than it looks. As a luminescent white shiba inu spirit, you are tasked by what seems to be a computer simulation (or it could be a digital rendition of the gods for all I know) to guide humans toward the light. In stages mostly made out of cubes, the humans continuously spawn from one white door and it's your job to tell them to turn and jump in the right places so that they can reach the exit in one piece. It's sort of like a modern 3D reimagining of Pipe Dream, except that the liquid is actually people instead. (It's weird, I know.)
Now, you don't need to worry about the humans dying herer or anything like that. If they ever fall from a place that's too high or otherwise meet their doom, they turn back into spiritual energy and emerge once more from the door of light. Or at least that’s how the narrator of the simulation explains it. Either way, it’s a good thing you don’t hear their screams or see any gory splatters anywhere, because the game is about a lot of trial and error. Between all the tweaks that I’ve had to make figuring out whether I need the humans to jump, high jump, or long jump into a bottomless pit, it’s nice that they’re pretty much docile and complacent sheeple. (To be honest, the analogy of herding sheep isn’t too far off.)
As good as Goldie
After the first few tutorial levels, it doesn’t take long before the game ramps up the difficulty. Spread throughout each stage are Goldies, which sort of look like Oscars brought to life, that are collected by catching them within the stream of humans. They’re usually out of the way to a degree, so you may be tempted to set them aside as optional objectives. But like stars in Super Mario 64, you’ll need to gather a certain number of Goldies throughout a world before you can move on to the next one. As a bonus, you’ll also unlock extra goodies and gameplay features by collecting Goldies, so they’re worth the effort of figuring out how to get them.
The main challenge with the Goldies is that, unlike the ordinary humans you order around, they can be lost if they do not reach the end goal in one go. This gives you a limited amount of time between catching a Goldie and leading them to the finish line. Due to this restriction, it’s best to lay down your orders on the ground first before retrieving the Goldie. That said, sometimes you don’t have the luxury of this sort of pre-planning, since your dog avatar has its limitations. You can jump pretty far as the dog despite its little legs, but reaching certain areas faraway requires that you turn into a spirit orb and ride the stream of humans to the other side. At any rate, there are elements of platforming and timing here that you need to consider as you move through each level.
As you advance through each world, you’ll also encounter another group of humans in black and white called The Others, who are not particularly pleased that you’ve been helping your team and not theirs. Eventually, this conflict boils over and you need to direct your humans to protect themselves, going so far as shooting the others. I won’t spoil much beyond that, but this part of the game offers a broad insight about human struggle and tribal behavior from a bird’s eye view (or is that a dog’s-eye view?).
While Humanity features numerous challenging puzzles, the developer has made sure not to block progress due to player frustration. Every puzzle gives you the ability to watch a solution video, which should save you some time finding out the answer on YouTube or a guide if you get stuck. The game will tally how many times you use these solution videos, though (so maybe you should use a guide). But still, this feature is a good move and trusts players enough to figure out whether they need help and control how difficult they want the experience to be.
Even better, much like Super Mario Maker and Dreams, players can build their own Humanity puzzles using the same building blocks as the developers use. While this mode was still in beta in the preview build I played, it still showcased a limited set of cool user creations. One called “Super Shiba Inu Bros” turns the game’s premise on its head by making the shiba inu the star and has the dog perform tricky jumps and swim carefully through water blocks to reach the end. Another user creation rebuilds a PC rig in giant form, complete with fans and translucent windows, while another features a giant pyramid with multiple layers of puzzle concepts.
In fact, this pyramid even impressed some of the game’s developers that I met at GDC 2023. I curiously asked whether they might be looking at these creations like some kind of resume, and well, let’s just say they didn’t say no.
Humanity already looks to be an incredible puzzle game that could be mentioned in the same breath as The Witness and The Talos Principle. It also has an optional VR mode that you can try using your VR headset of choice that’s compatible on PlayStation or PC. Humanity will release on May 16, 2023 for PC via Steam, PS4, and PS5. It will also be available on Day One through PlayStation Plus.
This preview is based on a PC (Steam) preview build provided by the publisher as well as a hands-off demo shown at GDC 2023.