I can’t exactly pinpoint the reason I’ve been reluctant to spend any money on the Switch eShop, but if I had to pick one, it would be a combination of 1) already having enough games to play, and 2) I don’t like digital-only games, and would like more physical games in my hand to get excited about. Most of the games on the eShop interest me in some way, but digital titles don’t give me the special feeling that physical games do, nor do I feel “invested” in them when it all happens in split seconds over a screen.
For the most part however, the second reason falls apart when the games are short and cheap, and I’m far more likely to pick something up if I know it won’t be a huge time sink or financial expenditure. I had a terrific time gettin’ retro with Blaster Master Zero, which I recently completed, and Fast RMX raced right into my top 10 of the year, but they were $15 and $20, respectively. Any more than that and my thought process turns into, “yeah, I’ll hold off for a physical release, or maybe not at all.”
That being said, I’ve enjoyed the constant eShop updates and there’s definitely lots to dig into on the eShop, provided you’re the opposite of me and love digital-only releases, but my copy of Breath of the Wild is pretty lonely on my shelf and nothing tickled my fancy enough to grab recently. Plus, I tend to get over-excited and buy a bunch of games I’ll never finish as it is, and I didn’t want to go down that rabbit-hole again.
Earlier tonight, I surprised myself by pulling the trigger on Human Resource Machine, part of the holy trinity released by developer Tomorrow Corporation several weeks ago, the other two being World of Goo and Little Inferno. The synopsis for the game seemed interesting enough, and I thought it would make for a good brain teaser. Ever since playing the Picross e series on the 3DS, I’ve been jonesin’ for something that required me to think a little bit, and as a programmer of several decades, I figured this would be right up my alley.
And let me tell you, up my alley it was.
So far up my alley, in fact, that I don’t know if anyone without a development background or at least a vague interest could possibly derive any joy from it.
What’s the Point?
The whole purpose of Human Resource Machine is to program a sequence of commands to solve a problem. You act as an entry-level employee, tasked with taking data from the Inbox, and moving them to the Outbox. Only, after the first level, all types of data manipulation must take place.
To manipulate the Inbox data, you are given an increasing number of commands. For example, taking from input, sending to output, incrementing numbers, adding and subtracting from other numbers, storing and retrieving data, and perhaps the most confusing aspect, jumping to different lines of code. Using these commands allows you to perform much more than would seem obvious at first, but as you figure out each level and everything “clicks,” you’ll realize they’re a lot more powerful than previously thought.
For example, you might need to add every two numbers together. Too easy? How about figuring out which one is lower? Perhaps calculating Fibonacci sequences? I’m on level 17 right now out of over 30, and I am getting tripped up left and right.
Have you ever taken an entry-level programming class? How about 15-20 years ago? I’m talking BASIC or Pascal, specifically. Because that’s the kind of rudimentary programming this game consists of. It’s essentially as low-level as Assembler, as you are only given 11 commands in total, though these are “enough to simulate almost any computer algorithm in the world!”
With the addition of the ability to step through code, and even leave comments to keep yourself vaguely organized, you essentially have a fully fledged compiler. Again, if I wasn’t a programmer, I don’t know how much fun I would be having! But I love these kind of brain teaser puzzles, and if you have any interest at all in programming or brain teasers, it is more than likely you will enjoy yourself here.
I was able to breeze past the first few levels with ease. As I already understand core programming concepts, the gameplay came naturally to me. But Human Resource Machine quickly took a 180 and turned my brain upside down. In addition to completing each level, there are two challenges that are centered around code optimization, if you want to go for the extra challenge. The first Optimization Challenge is completing the level without using more than a specified number of commands, and the second is completing the level with a minimum number of actions.
However, both of these challenges typically require multiple solutions, as the minimal amount of code isn’t always the most efficient, and the most efficient code isn’t always the shortest. Luckily, each puzzle allows you three different “workspaces” and the ability to copy & paste your code between them. Human Resource Machine was clearly designed by developers, because every convenience that a developer would have, is available to make life easier.
I first played the game in handheld mode and was amazed at how well it felt like I was playing on an iPad. The entire game controls with the touchscreen, and if that concerns you, let me say that it’s perfect for the gameplay. Really – button controls or even joystick use wouldn’t make sense here and would only serve to slow you down.
The majority of the gameplay has you dragging things around, tapping occasionally, and when you get access to comments, drawing comments. It feels great and you will immediately find yourself flicking in lines of code as fast as your brain can think. As a programmer myself, one of my biggest concerns is that my brain thinks faster than I can code. Human Resource Machine’s control scheme exists as if to quell that concern, because the speed at which you can manipulate the code couldn’t be any more quick and effective.
What is not quick and effective comes from television mode. Yes – this game can be played on the television even though it is primarily a touchscreen game, unlike Voez on the eShop, but I will say right now, this is not the ideal way to play this game.
While hooked up to the screen, you use the right JoyCon’s like a Wiimote. To be perfectly honest, I tried doing this, and immediately gave up after 2 minutes. Handheld mode just makes far more sense and is more comfortable considering the gameplay described above.
I’m divided as to the decision to include TV support, but I imagine Tomorrow Corporation was concerned about pigeon-holing one of their three software titles in this way. Television mode might work if you are pair programming with a coding buddy, but otherwise it is hugely inconvenient and will only serve to frustrate and slow down.
Do you like problem solving and brain teasers? Do you have a passion for efficiency? Do you want to learn some basic programming? Human Resource Machine could be a very enjoyable addition to your Switch repertoire. For the low cost of $10, it’s absolutely worth it in my opinion, that is, assuming you answered “yes” to at least one of my previous questions. Do you need to be a developer or have that developer mindset? Absolutely not. In fact, my preexisting developer mindset is I think what keeps holding me back from progressing in this game. Over-thinking what should be a simple solution has me at my wit’s end with a few levels. So if you have never programmed in your life, you may actually have an edge on me.
It can actually get very addicting, fair warning. No joke – I had trouble sleeping last night trying to figure out the second Optimization Challenge for Level 2. Level 2!! It’s that tricky sometimes and it will creep into your subconscious until you figure it out. But the amount of joy I derive from each completed level or challenge makes the 45 minutes spent wracking my brain totally worth it.
Human Resource Machine, like the other games in the Tomorrow Corporation collection, is well made and designed, with the art and music style to match with it’s charm. It doesn’t mess around and waste your time – you jump right into the game and play as you wish. You can play sloppily and without regard to code performance, chaining together spaghetti code till your heart’s content, or you can be pragmatic and find the most efficient way to minimize your code footprint. As long as the damn thing works. It’s a fun, goofy game with a great sense of humor that can be a great way to spend a couple of hours when you want to put the mindless games on the back-burner.