Platforms: PC, Mac, Wii U
We played on: Mac
Human Resource Machine is a bleak, funny, and satisfying apocalyptic coding game. That’s right: while watching the world slowly collapse to chaos in the background, you solve clever logic puzzles designed to impart basic coding skills.
You play as an office drone at a nonspecific corporation working your way up from the mailroom. Each floor of the building presents a new puzzle. As you progress higher and higher, you notice strange things happening on the breakroom TV and out of the windows of your office. Apocalyptic things…
Your bosses, your coworkers, the mysterious scientists in the back of the room—none of them seem to care about what’s happening outside, even when ash begins raining from the sky or huge chunks of the wall go missing. They just plug away at their jobs, making small talk in the breakroom and cracking bad jokes. Except for the scientists. They are silent.
This both simple and complex story was what compelled me to continue to play when other coding games have lost my interest. Even so, the puzzles are pretty fantastic on their own. On one side of every room is an inbox; on the other side is an outbox. On the floor are slots where you can copy and paste data. The inbox is full of numbers, letters, or both. Each puzzle asks you to organize the data in the inbox in some way before delivering it to the outbox. For example, the game might ask you to move all numbers except zero to the outbox. So, it becomes your job to figure out how to sort out the zeroes.
Sorting zeroes is something that’s easy for human brains, but kinda complex for machines. You have only a few simple actions at your behest, including copying, pasting, adding, and subtracting. You create lists of actions for your tiny avatar to carry out. If all goes well, your boss praises you and you can move onto the next level. Each level also corresponds with one year of your career, and you can watch your tiny avatar age over the course of the game.
One of the coolest things about this gameplay is that there are multiple solutions to every puzzle. I spent a few hours playing the game alongside a friend, and it was fascinating to watch how different her process was from mine. The game rewards you for using as few steps as possible. The fewer steps you use, the cleaner your code. And as all coders know, clean code is so important.
I came away from the game with two main complaints. The first was that the controls were somewhat awkward. Everything is drag and drop, with no options for keyboard shortcuts. In later levels, you earn the ability to write notes to yourself in your code, but the notes can only be drawn with a large, bulky pen. I wanted to be able to type short messages to myself, to explain my thinking if I needed to pause the game and come back later. But nope—not an option.
My other complaint was that some of the levels were super hard, and there wasn’t much in the way of a hint system. Helpfully, my in-game boss always gave me an example of the solution I was looking for, but that wasn’t always enough. Human Resource Machine could have gotten away with giving out pretty detailed hints without compromising its experience. You see, each solution requires that you understand the solutions for previous levels, so the few times that I did have to look up an answer online, I felt compelled to really work through it and understand it.
But overall, this game is awesome. It has really smart puzzles with real-world applications and it has a fantastic story that poses some big philosophical questions. What separates humans from machines? What does it mean to be a creator? If your life is spent doing busywork, is that good enough for you? What is busywork?
Human Resource Machine is available on Steam for $9.99. I highly recommend it.