I was nearing around the fifteenth stage in Human Resource Machine, the latest game from Little Inferno developer Tomorrow Corporation, when I realised that it didn’t feel like a game.
Rather, it felt like programming – which is exactly what the game is about. Human Resource Machine is a title that unapologetically appeals to only a limited audience. If a game about inputting programs to solve puzzles intrigues you, then keep reading.
Note: The newly released Nintendo Switch version features no new content when compared to earlier versions on other platforms – PC, Mac, Linux, and mobile. If you already dove in to the game’s approximately 40 puzzles once before, then there really isn’t a reason to dive back in.
When robots invade your workplace and you fear for your job security, what do you do? You spend your time working to move boxes from inbox to outbox in an effective manner, obviously! Such is the premise of Human Resource Machine, where solving puzzles consists of constructing visual programming using a variety of commands. Want to move a box from one assembly line to the other? Simply drag an inbox prompt, followed by an outbox prompt, into your program line and tell your worker to get busy.
What complicates things are the added conditions that your supervisor presents in each level. One stage might involve only sending negative numbers to the outbox, while another might involve adding the values of boxes together before sending them away. Levels typically follow a similar structure, though the introduction of new command prompts over time offers enough diversity to prevent mechanics from growing stale.
For the most part, learning the programming language that Human Resource Machine introduces is relatively straightforward. What sours the experience, unfortunately, is when the game takes considerable leaps in logic, educating the player on the basic process and then skipping to more advanced techniques without easing players into the routine. Introducing difficult puzzles that require strategies not introduced by the game undercuts the experience, turning satisfying challenges into frustrating moments of blind trial-and-error.
In these moments, it becomes apparent that Human Resource Machine struggles with who its intended audience should be. In its most difficult moments, it appears to cater solely to those with existing programming language experience; it simply doesn’t provide enough time introducing new players to the game’s formatting style to ever leave them feeling confident. While the first ten levels or so feel appropriate for new programmers, the difficulty quickly ramps up at a breakneck pace. This is sure to frustrate and potentially scare off new players who are on-the-fence about the unique gameplay premise. In these moments, Human Resource Machine desperately requires more balance – either to accommodate newcomers properly or ramp up the difficulty for seasoned coders.
One area of high praise, while playing on the Nintendo Switch, was the intuitive control schemes that were offered. Similar to mobile versions, the Joy-Con controllers can be removed from the console completely and the game can be played entirely with the touchscreen, dragging and dropping command prompts. The other method I thoroughly enjoyed involved disconnecting one of the Joy-Cons and using it in a point-and-click fashion – this can be done both portably and in docked mode. Either of these control schemes feel intuitive and responsive, and are very appropriate given the gameplay style.
Adding replay value are optional objectives for each level that require efficient programming; tasks consist of completing stages with a relatively small number of programs in your code, and using few moves to solve puzzles. Branching paths also offer more challenging levels, testing experienced players even further.
Gameplay aside, Human Resource Machine’s silly aesthetic is heavily reminiscent of Little Inferno, and that’s mostly a good thing. Silly little office workers are charming to watch, though repeated environments, while still attractive are a bit overused. Thematically, the idea of robots overthrowing humans is extremely tongue-in-cheek, and its relatable, almost dark tone resonates well in contrast with its cutesy visuals and sounds.
Human Resource Machine is a difficult case to argue for – while its premise and gameplay are entirely unique (albeit mildly repetitive later on), it struggles to clarify to whom it should appeal. Often too complex and obtuse in its teachings to cater to newcomer coders, it is bound to push away some of its audience with unnecessary difficulty spikes. On the other hand, successfully wrapping my mind around a difficult problem and coming out victorious is an exhilarating feeling. This is obviously not a game designed for everyone, and it often asks the player to think more along the lines of a programmer and less like a typical puzzle game fan. For the price, however, those intrigued by the game’s unique premise should feel more than comfortable taking a risk and purchasing. Overall, Human Resource Machine is a complex, albeit sometimes frustrating game that is sure to deeply satisfy those with a secret (or not-so-secret) affection for programming.