Homo Machina

This also makes an effective diagram on the best places to shoot someone.

Big time educational video games are a thing of the past. But, their fade into oblivion wasn’t exactly based on lack of sales. In a nutshell, by 1999 a publishing company called Softkey had most of the more well-known educational games like Reader Rabbit or Carmen Sandiego or Oregon Trail. Softkey was led by my dear friend Kevin O’Leary. Yes, THAT Kevin O’Leary. Mr. Wonderful on Shark Tank. But what happened was, Kevin and the Softkey guys were bought by Mattel for 4.2 *billion* dollars, even though they really weren’t worth that much and Mattel could never in a million years hoped to recoup on the deal. At least in a time frame most people would consider reasonable. This was around the time of the Dot Com gold rush, and Mattel probably had big plans for these properties related to that. But $4,200,000,000? Yikes!

It startled people at the time and later went down as one of the worst deals ever. But, people didn’t really stop buying educational software. What happened is, Mattel had to try to get back what they paid for it, so they overspent on the production of the games, then over-manufactured them. The inventory outweighed the demand and what had been relatively low-cost to produce products suddenly had too much money being spent to create them. This led to Mattel posting losses on the Learning Company.. you know, the thing they massively overpaid for.. and it was thought “well shit, if Mattel can’t make money on these types of games, who can?” Absurd, but that’s how it works when short-sighted, overly-reactionary people are in charge. The industry decided that the bottom had fallen out on educational software, even though there was no other evidence of that besides Mattel’s losses. Bye-bye educational software. Oh, and Mattel fired Kevin. Kevin was so crushed he could barely muster up the enthusiasm to sit and count his millions by the fireplace, with a glass of fine wine, probably cackling. I picture cackling. And he’s naked when I picture it. I need help.

It’s a little more complex than that and more than a few heads at Mattel rolled over it, but that was the downfall of educational-entertainment in the game industry. Based on nothing but an obviously bad, reactionary, short-sighted deal going about as well as expected. When business gets dumb, it gets real dumb.

One of the minigames is really just a stripped down, no-fail version of Hang-Man. The answers were a garbled word-salad. Maybe the human’s date involved showing her the Oh…Sir games.

Those IPs are rotting on vine, and honestly the new Carmen Sandiego on Netflix wasn’t for me, but that there’s no reason for edutainment to be dead. Hell, if a group of plucky modders can save Sonic The Hedgehog (at least before Hollywood and Jim Carrey drive the final stake through his heart), why can’t indies do the same for educational games? Take this idea: Homo Machina. Which is Latin for “Man Machine.” But I’m sure some particularly dense and hateful parents won’t know that and forbid their kids from playing the game they think is about gay robots. Homo Machina is a game that aspires to educate children on the human body. This way they’ll  understand the mechanics of all the things people on Xbox Live are saying they’re doing with their mothers.

The real kicker is they based the game around the art of Fritz Kahn. You might not know the name, but you for sure know his work. He’s the one who drew the human body like a giant factory or machine populated by human workers. He’s considered the Godfather of Infographics. And, if you want to talk about someone who lived a fascinating life, look no further than Kahn. Homo Machina uses the basis of his work to teach children and adolescents about bodily functions. Frankly, it’s not the worst starting point for an edutainment game I’ve ever heard. But what do I know? I’m inching towards the big 3-0 in two months. And, despite the Power Rangers / Super Sentai fandom, I’m fairly sure I know how the human body works. In the immortal words of Jaime Lannister: “the first time you cut a man. Realize we are nothing but sacks of meat, blood and some bone to keep it all standing.” Not that I’ve ever cut a man. Flame throwers don’t cut.

So, I recruited my nephew (age 13) and niece (age 7) to give the game a try. Homo Machina is broken up into a series of short vignettes. Holding the Switch vertically, like a tablet, you’re presented with puzzles based around getting the human machine to work properly. Stuff like focusing an eye to see, an immune response to a cut, tuning into a song, etc. Each of us made one complete play-through, which takes under an hour or so. The “puzzles” are rudimentary touch-screen stuff with no fail conditions. They’re all short and simply, with the only one giving me issues being the two hearing mini-games. One requires you to pluck cords in your eardrum in sync with a noise coming through, while the other asks you to tune into the frequency of the music. The final tuning bit took me forever to get everything to line up and was insanely frustrating since the touch controls throughout the game can be imprecise and fickle. The little people inside me were activating my cussing mechanism. The struggle with this game was the only of the minigames that all three of us couldn’t quite get right, and in fact I had to solve it for the 7-year-old. Hah, showed her. Psssh, newb.

They could have included extra modes and challenges after the game. Like with the heart one, you just took a speed ball. Keep your heart from exploding and live long enough to say “I’M NEVER DOING THAT AGAIN!”

The short run-time (though at a low price) of Homo Machina didn’t really take the edge off for me. I have to confess: I got really bored quickly with it, and never really stopped being bored. The minigames are too simple and the art style and presentation did nothing for me. It’s not actively bad, but the inspired setting didn’t really lead to inspired gameplay. But, Homo Machina wasn’t really made for 30-year-olds. So the question is, what did the kids think of it?

The answer: they liked it. Mostly. The base problem is the framing of a human body as a factory with business people and a board of directors running the show didn’t really connect with them. Both are fans of Pixar’s Inside Out and that made more sense to them, at their ages, than a boardroom did. But, they loved the actual gameplay mechanics. Through those, without the story or dialog, both got immersed enough that they felt they were contributing to the life of a real person. That’s important. It’s the edutainment secret-sauce that the top games like Carmen Sandiego had going for them. The sense that the tasks are important and are building to something bigger. Both were disappointed that the game ended when it did. Hell, the ending took me by surprise too. The last mini-game is about lining fingers up with a possible love-interest and doesn’t feel climatic at all. It ends with the people inside the human machine celebrating and dancing. It felt like we were just starting and the first chapter was over. But nope, credits. I think it says a lot about Homo Machina’s potential for young people that they were both crushed that the game was over. Meanwhile, I silently did a fist-pump.

One universal complaint, besides the bleh touch input, was that the games come with almost no instructions and it’s not always clear what touch motions you’re supposed to be using to achieve what effect. In a game that requires you to mix chemicals to activate your adrenal glands, there’s no instruction that you need to shake-up the beaker. I spent a few minutes poking at the screen trying to figure out what the next step was, including botching the puzzle by turning the heat on before the mixture was ready. None of this stuff is a deal breaker, nor particularly challenging, but what you’re supposed to be interacting with and how you’re supposed to are common questions during Homo Machina that you get no answers to.

This is the music game I was talking about. See the graph on top? Well, the game is quite anal about getting it just right, since I spent almost as much time trying to get that right as I would listening to an actual song. I pictured Homer Simpson stun-locked after Carl told him he was slow.

The real real question is: does Homo Machina have educational value? For thirteen-year-olds, probably not. My nephew already understood things like respiration and nerve signals. At least he still had fun playing the game. But, my niece now knows that her body makes chemicals that help her run and knows the basics of how nerves work (she got very wide-eyed when she found out her body used electricity and asked if she would ever become a super hero). So yeah, there’s something here, but no means to quantify it. Then again, did kids really learn all that much about the Manifest Destiny from Oregon Trail? Over thirty-years after it came out and really, what people older than me learned from it is that dying of projectile diarrhea is fucking hilarious.

Still, I like what Homo Machina represents. I was literally just talking to developer Red Vonix (who was such a good sport with my Santa’s Special Delivery review) about the gaping hole left by the lack of educational games. Think about it: the generations that came before me still talk warmly about Oregon Trail and it’s hilarious death-by-dysentery lessons, while even the most cynical of millennials develop a subtle phosphorescence when talking about Reader Rabbit. That’s something current generations don’t have. Indie developers should take note, because it could be your work that gets the fondly-remembered meme treatment 30 years from now. Homo Machina might end up being that game for my niece and nephew. Sadly, I found it too boring to award my seal of approval to. I spent a solid week going back and forth on whether or not I should, but ultimately I can only speak for myself. If the kids don’t like it, they can start their own blog. But seriously parents, you could do worse than spending $3 on Homo Machina. For example, you can force your kids to play your generation’s educational games. Just remember, if you do so your kids will wonder what they did to piss you off.

Homo Machina was developed by Seaven Studio
Point of Sale: Nintendo Switch, iOS, Android

$2.99’s niece thinks static electricity makes her Raiden in the making of this review.

IF I could award my seal of approval based on how RJ’s kids liked Homo Machina, I would have done it. So parents, take note.

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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