Friday, December 30, 2016

Dave Critiques - Human Resource Machine: Puzzle fatigue


Hey hey folks, Dave here. Just a friendly reminder that this is a critique. I will be talking about Human Resource Machine for those who have played it. If you haven’t and are worried about spoilers, please pause the video, and go play the game before returning. For everyone else, let’s continue.

Human Resource Machine is the latest game from the minds behind World of Goo and Little Inferno. Fans of those games should recognize the art style immediately. This is a game where you create a list of commands which orders your worker around to complete a task given to them. Essentially, the game is teaching you how to program to solve problems. Each subsequent floor increases the challenge so that you’re multiplying, dividing, and then even outputting a fibonacci sequence. There’s also medals for solving the problem in the least amount of lines of code, or cycles through the program you’ve written. If you’re anything like me, if you’ve spent an hour solving one of these problems, and it turns out you’ve achieved one of these medals, it’s a feeling of extreme vindication and satisfaction. The game excels at that feeling to a point. To explain, I must dictate my journey through the floors of this fictitious company.

Have you ever played one of those mobile games where 3 stars is possible on every stage? When I approach one of those games my thought process usually goes like this. “I’m going to get 3 stars on every level.” Then after a couple of levels, “I’m gonna just try my best for two stars.” Then, “Man, I just want to finish the levels”, followed by looking up a walkthrough or stopping the game for good. My time with Human Resource Machine followed a similar pathway. There are branching paths as you make your way up the floors of the building. These branches are optional as they contain very difficult problems to solve. Partly due to a small amount of OCD and a large amount of stubbornness, I decided to tackle these puzzles. The floors alternated after all, and I wasn’t going to jump to floor 23 if I hadn’t completed floor 22. And as tough as some of these challenges were, and despite staring at my screen for close to an hour on a few of these, my brain eventually worked its way to a solution, and I felt amazing. To be honest, some of my best ideas came to me when I wasn’t playing the game. When meditating or walking, an idea would spring to mind, and the next time I loaded up the game, I was eager to try it. More often than not, that idea was what I needed to get through.

Then I got to the final branch. The Vowel Incinerator puzzle took me longer than any puzzle beforehand. Coming to the solution was excruciating. I will say right now that any time I had trouble with a puzzle (which was most of the time), I would go online to search for hints. I would read the forum threads on Steam where people were posting their solutions. This actually wasn’t a spoiler because the abstract nature of the code when pasted into a forum meant nothing to me. I was looking for commentary and hints to maybe push me in the right direction. Often the opposite happened. I don’t know if it’s normal internet bragging or a programmer’s mindset but everyone in these threads was talking about how easy it was. Oh it was a positive atmosphere mostly, where people were optimising each other's code and discussing the different ways to approach the problem, but as I was having such an issue with each level, I found this incredibly disheartening. I don’t think I’m particularly stupid (well no one really does), but I do think that perhaps my brain is not geared towards what is needed to easily see the solutions to these problems.

So after the difficulty of Vowel Incinerator, I opened the first puzzle in the final optional branch of the game. Looking at what it was asking me to do triggered a decision. I was no longer two starring the game (by solving every puzzle). I would stick to the main line and see the ending. This worked for a while, and then I got to the second last puzzle, Re-coordinator and something broke inside me. I no longer cared about solving the puzzles. I just wanted it to be over. I went to the Steam forum, copied the first solution in the thread, pasted it into the game, and enjoyed the ending. The only problem? I felt terrible after all was said and done. Like I had persevered so much through this whole game, and then right at the finish line I gave up. As I was playing through the levels, I often thought to myself how fantastic this is that I’m slowly making my way through these difficult challenges. When I solved the entire chain of optional puzzles starting with the fibonacci sequence, I was over the moon. Nothing could defeat me. Well yes, I could defeat myself. Something broke and I no longer cared. I gave up. So what went wrong?

The title of this video is ‘puzzle fatigue’. It’s a phenomenon I’ve thought about ever since the sequence I described with the mobile games first happened years ago. It’s a different phenomenon than just becoming bored with what a game is offering and deciding to move onto something else, but I think they share similarities. Now that a few days have gone by since I finished Human Resource Machine, I’ve been thinking of returning to it. I’ve been thinking about not only solving all the puzzles I haven’t, but I’d like to earn the optimization medal on every puzzle. Who knows, perhaps puzzle fatigue is simply a form of burnout. Games are usually repetitions of certain actions, and what makes an engaging game is a variety of said actions, or choices on how to utilize said actions. Human Resource Machine has a limited set of actions in the form of the commands available. As the puzzles show, these limited commands can be used to startling effect in a variety of ways, but perhaps the problem is that this variety is not immediately apparent.

A lot of the time spent solving the puzzles is based on working out just what you can actually do with the commands at your disposal. And while you’re trying to figure this out, you’re staring at the same office space you have been since the start of the game. The coffee breaks are not long enough to shake off the futility of your actions, and the encroaching horror of automation. There’s certainly a demoralising aspect to solving the puzzles in this game, and I wonder if it was intentional or not. And why did I feel so bad about looking up a walkthrough for this game, yet not for the puzzles in The Talos Principle? I think it might be because of the nature of these puzzles, I invested my self-worth in their solutions. My solution is unique, and by using another person’s solution, I had not actually solved the puzzle at all. I didn’t get help to progress, I cheated.

So what’s the answer to puzzle fatigue? Is it simply personal? What differentiates a puzzle that a player wants to solve themselves no matter what from a puzzle that they have no qualms about looking up a solution for? What triggers the change from the former to the latter? Is it a fault in the game or in the player? There’s definitely a difference between a game that has puzzles for their own sake rather than using puzzles as gameplay to break up story and world exploration. The two aren’t mutually exclusive either. Human Resource Machine’s puzzles are largely for their own sake. That likely means that the enjoyment of the game and personal satisfaction from playing comes from the player. This may be why so many felt let down by the bare bones story, and why I felt so terrible not getting to the end on my own.

Thanks for watching.

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