Human Subject

♫Oobie doobie do, I want to be like you.  I want to walk like you, talk like you too!♫

That’s from Disney’s Jungle Book, where King Louie sings to Mowgli about wanting to be like him.  I was reminded of that song when I played Human Subject.  Why?  Because it wants to be like Portal so bad that it feels like it could break out into that song at any given time.  The idea is you’re a dude who is kidnapped by Aliens and is being tested by them to see how easy the planet would be to conquer.  Maybe.  Or if the incredibly stupid twist-ending is to be believed, it’s something else.  The game is narrated by a computerized female voice that sounds just like GLaDOS in every way except the being funny part.  There are fourteen levels, and each level has an opening joke and a “you died, here’s a joke about that” joke.  So 28 jokes total.  Of those, I laughed at exactly one line in the game.  That’s a 3.57% success rate.  Probably better than Everybody Loves Raymond, but still not funny.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Portal has destroyed a generation creatively.  Before Portal, people had original ideas.  Now, any sci-fi themed game that aims to be humorous has to follow Portal’s lead like it’s playing Simon Says, and Human Subject does so with particular gusto.  It’s like they took Portal and broke it off into a checklist.  Sterile environment?  Check.  Silent protagonist is a test subject?  Check.  Dead-pan, off-screen, computerized female antagonist?  Check.  Portals?  Check.  Joke about a cake?  Sigh.  Check.

That fucking cake joke.  Guys, it wasn’t really that funny in Portal.  And it hasn’t been funny even once since Portal came out.  Not in any game.  Not in any web comic.  Not on any tee-shirt.  This is the third XBLIG I’ve played where I accurately predicted that there would be a cake joke.  That doesn’t make me a psychic.  You guys are just that predictable.  STOP WITH THE FUCKING CAKE JOKES!

And to ensure that you comply with this, I’ve hired Ving Rhames to enforce this rule.  If you make a cake joke in your game, Portal clone or otherwise, Ving will show up at your door and kneecap your mother with a pistol.  If you do not have a mother, offers its sincere condolences, and will kneecap someone else’s mother for your convenience.

By the way, none of this plot stuff leads anywhere.  The “twist” means dick shit and there is NO ENDING at all.  When you beat the last level, you’re immediately dumped to the title screen.  And the last level has nothing climatic about it.  It’s just another level.  It’s not even the hardest one in the game.  I’m not saying they were in the wrong by trying to have some kind of story, but don’t start one, completely change it three-quarters of the way through the game, and then end the game without any closure.  That’s pretty lousy storytelling.  Imagine if the Wizard of Oz ended with Dorothy killing the witch, and then the Tin Man turning to the camera and saying “Don’t worry, this is actually just a dream” followed by “THE END”.  Without the iconic “and you were there, and you were there” ending scene, that movie doesn’t go down as one of the all-time classics.  It just doesn’t.

So what is the actual game like?  You run, you jump, and you occasionally hit a switch.  That’s it.  No ducking, no sliding, no wall-jumping, or any acrobatics at all.  Levels are mostly of the walk left until you reach the exit variety.  Occasionally, something will teleport you somewhere else, but that typically means the exit is somewhere else, restoring the status quo.  The hook is you can’t die.  Instead, you might hit an energy beam which teleports you backwards to various points in the stage.  Otherwise known as dying if this was any other game, but that’s Human Subject’s gimmick so I’ll roll with it.

Human Subject is not bad.  A lot of people would be thrilled to hear those words from me, but in this game’s case, it really could have been so much more.  Every good thing the game does is sunk by something incredibly stupid it does.  Level design is centered around precision platforming, not punishing platforming.  And then there are levels where you have to randomly guess which switches to hit, or which lasers to walk through that will help you progress instead of regress.  I just played a game that made a similar design mistake.  I don’t understand it.  Why would you take the time to map out so many well designed levels, and then throw in sections where you have to rely on just stupid luck?  You did everything smart up to that point.  Let’s put it this way: let’s say you’re using a Sat-Nav system, which 90% of the time tells you exactly what you want.  However, the other 10% of the time, the machine outright giggles at you and says “maybe it’s to the left, or maybe it’s to the right, or maybe it’s straight forward.  Good luck!”  You would rip the fucking box out of your car and back over it.  Human Subject was not a trial and error game, so why turn it into one?  Just a fucking dumb idea.

The controls are acceptable.  Mostly.  My biggest problem was the slightly unresponsive jumping.  My most common method of failure was running towards a ledge, hitting jump, and not having the guy jump fast enough and instead run off the platform to his doom.  Movement and jumping physics are fine, but that slight delay in jumping led to me swearing more than a sailor with his nutsack caught in a bear trap.  Also, on one level the frame rate dropped significantly, causing the game to stutter like it had just downed ten pots of black coffee.  It only happened once, but it was sure annoying when it was happening.

By far the most frustrating thing for me was the pace of the game is crippled by how slow the actual teleporting thing works.  When you miss a jump, or you intentionally hit a portal-beam-thingie as part of the level design, your dude doesn’t instantly reappear at the other side.  No, instead the game slowly crawls towards the respawn point.  This totally kills the pace of the game.  To Human Subject’s credit, the timer stops when this happens.  Oddly enough, the moving platforms don’t stop moving, which means the teleporting thing is happening in real-time.  This suggests that the aliens have perfected interstellar travel, but haven’t figured out how to send information electronically as fast as we’ve been doing since the 1830s.  They can fly thousands of light-years, but they can’t communicate faster than the speed of sound.  I’m suddenly not worried at all about being invaded by these things.  No matter what technology they have, if a two sentence phone call will take them five minutes to complete, I think we have the advantage.

The jumping thing, the slow-respawning thing, and the occasional random-chance thing really do sour the Human Subject experience.  Without them, it’s a pretty decent game.  I still mildly recommend it, but those three easily fixable hiccups really spoil it.  I don’t even care that the writing sucks and isn’t funny 96.43% of the time.  Good writing might make a game more memorable, but play mechanics are what make it worth your time.  If Portal was played straight, without the humor, it would have been as good a game as it turned out, but you might have forgotten it faster too.  The truth is, unless a game is centered around humor (like DLC Quest), writing is only icing on the.. cinnamon roll.  Back down, Ving.

EDIT: I feel this review failed to articulate that I did enjoy my time with Human Subject, flaws and all.  I issued an apology to Bryan Hendo and my readers here.

Human Subject was developed by Bryan Hendo

80 Microsoft Points said prefer their Brians to have an “I” in their name in the making of this review.

Human Subject is ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.  Click here to see where it landed.

SPOILER! Highlight the invisible textSo the aliens are not planning to blow up the world.  Instead, you’re part of an alien reality show.  Whatever.  The good news is the developer clearly put more thought into the game than into the writing, because if the game was as bad as the writing it would be unplayable. END OF SPOILER!

Gameplay courtesy of Aaron The Splazer, the official best source of non-bullshit trailery gameplay footage of Xbox Live Indie Games on YouTube.

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