Humanity’s solutions are more triumphant than its puzzles

Humanity’s biggest draw is not mechanical. Almost all of the game’s dozens of puzzles would work identically if the player directed streams of liquid or colorful marbles or a few nondescript automatons. But Humanity’s defining feature, the gears of its puzzles being made up of thousands upon thousands of individual human beings, serves a purpose higher than simple gameplay novelty. The graphical splendor of Humanity doubles as its path to the profound, its sheer visual scale elevating its otherwise traditional challenges.

There’s a scene in Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low in which a room of detectives is briefed on an ongoing crime. Nothing too narratively vital happens in this sequence. But the scene is framed to fit nearly 40 people, so that every reaction to new information in the scene is mirrored and amplified 40 times. The composition turns an otherwise straightforward script into a dense, sweaty, cinematic tour de force. The magnitude of people lends the scene a captivating level of visual engagement.

Humanity, a collaboration between Japanese creative firm tha and Enhance (Tetris Effect, Lumines), started out as a technical experiment with a similar goal: How many people could be rendered on screen at the same time? Before there was even a game, there was recognition of the same fact Kurosawa knew: People, at scale, are inherently visually interesting.

This scale is key to Humanity. Often, levels can only be completed when hundreds of people have walked the same path to the goal. In the stage-select screen, thousands of bodies mill about as you choose what you’d like to play. Even the soundtrack, a digitized choir, reinforces the sense of being inundated with the sights and sounds of humanity. But despite this overwhelming human presence, the game’s tone is cleverly detached. The player controls a dog and only converses with featureless spheres. No one in the crowd ever speaks. For all the visual and auditory presence of humanity, what the player should make of the infinite collective is left up to interpretation.

A line of people parade up a hill around hovering balls and two buttons featuring dogs in Humanity Image: tha/Enhance

For example: The first several puzzles in Humanity start with a white door, out of which pours an endless stream of humans. Adults and children alike file out from the door in an orderly line and continue walking forward until presented with an instruction from the player. Almost immediately after encountering this procession, I made a mistake — I accidentally gave the people a wrong direction. Instead of walking toward their goal, they turned and without hesitation plunged off a cliff. This sort of casual massacre will happen constantly in Humanity; the game tells me that over 478,000 participants perished over the course of my playthrough. Whether this number should be taken as an indictment of the player or merely a statistic is left unsaid.

For this reason, Humanity feels akin to Tetris Effect, or even Katamari, games that are both intimately human and somewhat alien, taking the trappings of society and abstracting them almost beyond recognition. And like both those games, Humanity garners a feeling of profundity through this abstraction, able to function as a sort of infinitely complex Rorschach for society. Read the game as a grand statement on enlightenment, or conflict, or technology. Humanity’s theme, like the endless stream of people in each level, is yours to control.

People of different sizes and colors march toward a desaturated horde in Humanity Image: tha/Enhance

The puzzles themselves are as varied as their possible interpretations, though not, fortunately, nearly as complex. While the game always has the same basic structure of “lead the humans to a goal,” each stage of the game centers on an idea. Stages themed around “fate” might ask you to lay down every instruction in advance. Stages themed around “war” hand every person in your parade a gun and tell you to wipe out your opposition (seriously!). Every level has a bonus goal, and, if needed, a video that will tell you exactly how to complete it.

While the early levels are consistently a joy to finish, Humanity stumbles later on by introducing more unpredictable and time-sensitive elements. During and after “war,” the game occasionally leans toward RTS-style levels, with quick commands and direct control of weapons required for completion. While still visually striking, the elements of these puzzles are significantly harder to anticipate. Even after knowing the solution, incorrectly timing an early maneuver wrong can lead to multiple unsatisfying restarts. It also never reaches the genius-level design of a game like Baba Is You or The Witness, or requires too much out-of-the-box thinking. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t require the same genius from the player as either of those titles either; I was able to reach 100% completion in Humanity despite not being particularly good at puzzle games.

Ultimately, focusing too closely on any puzzle solution misses what’s special about Humanity. In the days since playing, I’ve found myself most often thinking not about a specific mechanic, but what each level looks like once completed. By removing my ability to influence the stage, the completion screen presents the purest form of the game’s beautiful aesthetic: an unending river of people jumping, swimming, climbing. Orderly, but overwhelming. Moving, united, toward a singular goal.

Humanity was released on May 16 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC using a pre-release download code provided by Enhance. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.