The origin of Humanity (the video game) sounds like the end of humanity (the concept).
Visual director Yugo Nakamura and his team of creatives asked a simple question: “How many digital people can we put on a screen at once?” To find the answer, they created Humanity: a sterile, brutalist world in which infinite streams of humans marched up, down, and around towering structures before falling into an abyss.
At this point, Humanity wasn’t much of a game. Nor was it being made by game developers — not in the traditional sense.
The designers are part of tha, a Japanese creative firm that does a bit of everything, from a reimagining of the Tokyo public toilet and Uniqlo’s blocky branding, to experimental fashion and experiential art installations.
Their jobs sound fun, but even the people who get paid to conceptualize futuristic bathrooms need a distaction. Every job is, after all, still a job. Or as Nakamura says, “It’s important to always have something else [to focus on], not just the day-to-day desk assignment. Something to have fun and be curious and push things to lead to future projects.”
And so the side thing, back in 2017, was to put as many people on screen as possible. And in most versions of the story, Humanity would remain just that — a side thing tucked away in a folder on some office PC.
But Humanity is what happens when you have time to experiment, when you share your ideas with the world, and when you get lucky (or touched by fate) and have the support of one of the most prestigious video game producers in the history of the medium.
Unsure what would come next for their visual novelty, and unwilling to compost it, the team at tha presented a visual demo at the Unity Festival in Tokyo before a panel of judges — one of whom was Tetsuya Mizuguchi. If you don’t already know Mizuguchi by name, you know the games he’s helped produce: Rez, Lumines, Extery Extended Extra, and most recently and perhaps most famously, Tetris Effect. He’s the founder and CEO of Enhance, a video game publisher/experiential art creative studio.
Mizuguchi has used Enhance (and his bona fides) to help other projects get off the ground and through development. Sometimes that’s a logical project, like a modernization of the greatest puzzle game of all time. Sometimes it’s far more abstract, like an R&D lab “focused on synesthesia and the architecture of other multi-sensory experiences.” In this case, it’s somewhere in the middle: converting conceptual visual art into a playable, wholly new video game.
“We can call [seeing that early art] luck or chance or all about timing,” says Mizuguchi, “but I believe it was meant to happen. Yugo-san said the tech demo was out of curiosity. But I don’t take that word lightly. Curiosity leads to something. When we met, I felt his strong desire to make [something more]. Not saying his other work doesn’t have that feeling, but I felt like he wanted to create an experience that was unlike anything he’d done before.
“I felt like if I give this person the tools and resources to make a game, he already has the core sensibilities to do that. I saw in his mannerism and eyes that he was not going to give up on this opportunity.”
Mizuguchi was correct that Nakamura could and would see Humanity to completion. But neither artist expected the project to take five years, with Mizuguchi as executive producer and Nakamura overseeing creative direction, art direction, and design. (Though, perhaps they should have expected a five-year development time as a minimum, what with the game literally being named after the very idea of our shared consciousness.)
Humanity, as it stands a month before release, is a puzzle game that visually recalls Lemmings (a bunch of followers, obeying your guidance even as they fall to their demise) and creatively echoes Chu Chu Rocket (place arrows to steer mindless beings to safety). Each stage is a discrete puzzle and can be completed in multiple ways. Some are relatively simple. But for completists who want to collect the giant golden beings standing in the corners or on seemingly out-of-reach podiums, there are far more challenging paths.
As the game progresses, the player gets new directives to give to its stream of humans, telling them to perform high jumps or long jumps, or dive into perfectly geometric pillars of water and swim to the other side. And the goals change, too. For example, the infinite stream of people sometimes becomes finite, making survival and timing key.
Did I mention you, the player, are represented as a dog? An ethereal shiba inu, to be precise. You bark with authority and the people obey.
It is, as you have already assumed, a strange game. I’m still early on, and have so many questions. What’s up with the liminal space between missions, where all of my people and golden statues — known as Goldies — linger as if waiting for the rapture? And how the hell will I ever complete some of these stages — let alone the user-made stages that will be produced once the game’s level maker tool goes live? I’m overwhelmed by the game and I’m not the one who had to spend the past half decade creating it.
Before the end of my interview with Nakamura, I asked if he would do this all over again. If he knew when he asked that simple question — How many people can I fit on screen? — that he would eventually have to create an entire video game that’s so much bigger and weirder and more audacious.
“In life and in general, what you don’t know you don’t know.” Nakamura says. “I jumped into this not knowing the depth and challenges and effort that is involved in making a game. If I knew that from the beginning, I’m not sure if I would have gone down that path. Now that I do know, it’s extremely difficult to make a game.” And yet, he seems to have no regrets, repeatedly sharing his gratitude for this opportunity.
“[At Enhance] we crave creative work that is very unique,” says Mizuguchi. “We want to support and discover new artists along the way – with similar values. If we discover their work, we want to expose it to a larger audience. That hasn’t changed [since the founding of Enhance]. That will always be a path we look for.