As a kid, I was fascinated by the adventures of The Numskulls – tiny comic-book critters that lived inside and controlled people. The concept was presumably inspired by physician Fritz Kahn, an infographic pioneer who reimagined people’s insides as 1920s semi-mechanised factories. Homo Machina blends the irreverence of the former and the beautiful visuals of the latter, to create a beguiling – if brief – journey inside the body.
This means you’re faced with a human body packed with gears, screens, wires, pulleys, and little people trying to make everything work. You’re directed by ‘management’ (in the brain), who might want to take in an aroma. But the ‘tube’ (nose) is blocked (with green gunge) and needs clearing (with the kind of precision firehose you’d kill for when you’ve a cold). At one point, there’s a cry of “Alert the mastication teams!” When someone realises it’s time for the body to eat.
In other words, don’t send Homo Machina someone’s way to help them revise for their biology A-Level.
Ghost in the machine
Your involvement in all this micro-management is primarily getting this pseudo cyborg through the day. In order to do this, you have to figure out in each chapter how the part of the body you’re currently focussed on actually works. When you’re chomping bits of food, that’s easy enough – move massive guillotine-like teeth up and down, and then crush food using roller-like molars on a conveyor belt.
Elsewhere, though, Homo Machina flirts with more abstract ideas – most notably, when trying to route an audio signal through the ear – and there’s also the odd surprisingly tense arcade experience. One section has you deal with the nervous system and must activate specific parts of the body on demand. All this requires is punching buttons, but this becomes a nerve-racking experience when you’re faced with a maze of wires and are up against the clock.
Throughout, Homo Machina is never less than visually dazzling, full of character, texture and detail. The same is true of the soundtrack, which blends sound effects, melody, and background noise that perfectly matches the 1920s feel.
However, you must be mindful Homo Machina veers as much towards interactive movie as game. Everything is heavily choreographed, and there’s no sandbox. It’s more like ISLANDS: Non-Places in ushering you through a narrative in strict order, rather than letting you, say, randomly dart to the big toe to see what’s going on.
The narrative itself feels a bit old-fashioned, too, which is befitting of the aesthetic, but does come across a touch Mad Men. Still, there is humour and heart at the core of this mechanical being, not least when it attempts to whisper sweet nothings to a lady friend on a first date, and can only think of a fondness for breakfast foods. No wonder the manager is constantly stressed.