Wireframe

Absolutely knackered: Exhausted Man is a physics-based puzzler for the modern worker

By Ryan Lambie. Posted

Whether we’re feeling overwhelmed by work or bewildered by crises at home or abroad, it’s probably safe to say that many of us can identify with the torpid protagonist in Exhausted Man. Certainly, this curious puzzle game, in which players flex, guide, and corral a flaccid human figure around a series of domestic environments, has captured the attention of such outlets as Kotaku and Rock Paper Shotgun since its announcement in late 2021. “Yes, I think most players and press are interested in Exhausted Man because the theme’s so universal,” agrees developer Gao Ming, founder of Beijing’s Candleman Games. “The reasons for feeling exhausted may vary, but the result is the same. Maybe it’s related to the high competition in modern society, or the explosion of information.”

Exhausted Man first emerged as a prototype for a Ludum Dare game jam in 2017; the event’s theme was ‘running out of power’, and so Ming thought, “How about a man running out of power?” With that in mind, Ming initially thought about making a 3D platformer where your character crawled and dawdled rather than sprinted around the place – “In short,” Ming tells us, “a hilarious platformer without the jumping.”

After a bit of experimenting, however, Ming came up with something rather different: a physics-based puzzler that takes place over two phases. In phase one, you’re presented with an empty room which you can decorate with furniture, shelves, and other assorted knick-knacks. When you’re finished, it’s onto phase two: the daily tasks. These will involve guiding your floppy hero (or heroine, if you so choose) around the room and interacting with the objects you placed earlier; you might be asked to touch a laptop with your head, or pick up an object and guide it to a marked location. The latter is one of Ming’s favourite challenges of the ones he’s designed so far; “It’s straightforward enough, but will also give some unexpected challenges while doing it,” he tells us. “The mark might be obscured by other items, or the target item is knocked out of the marked area by the character’s foot… We want to make a comedy game, so it should not only be challenging but also capable of creating some comedy moments.”

Complete these daily challenges and you’ll further the plot – appropriately enough, about an exhausted software developer – and unlock a new scene with fresh items and yet more tasks to tick off your list. “The process is quite like how kids play with toys,” Ming says. “Select some toys from the collection and place them in your toy house, then perform some events using those items and characters. We’ll give you more items that you could place in a single playthrough, and the in-game shop will show them randomly. That way, room decoration will vary from player to player.”

The player character’s movement, and the specific way the figure flops and lolls about as it’s guided along walls and over objects, proved to be one of the trickiest hurdles during early development. Ming’s previous game, the sumptuous-looking platformer Candleman, was firmly in the tradition of the 3D platform-puzzler genre, which meant there were other reference points to fall back on during development – “we could judge the quality of gameplay according to Mario and learn how to craft the emotional experience by looking at Journey,” Ming says. With Exhausted Man, the lack of other similar games to reference “was frightening and made me feel lost,” he adds. “For quite a long time, almost a year, I wasn’t sure if it’s OK to make a game like this, if those game mechanics would work, or if we should move on.”

Ming found solace in maverick Japanese developer Keita Takahashi, whose work – most famously Katamari Damacy and Wattam – pushes the boundaries of what a video game can be. “The most important lesson I learned from Takahashi’s games is that it’s OK to make games that no one has seen before,” Ming tells us. “His work encouraged me to move on and explore more strange game ideas. In fact, I’ve a list of names that I’ll look at to find courage when I’m facing frightening problems of innovation. Keita Takahashi is sure on that list.”

Now in full production with an eye for release later in 2023, Exhausted Man promises to be one of this year’s most unusual and creative puzzle games. And while its story may be about a perpetually tired developer trying to debug their game on the eve of an expo, Ming says his experience of making Exhausted Man hasn’t been quite as draining so far. “I hope players will laugh a lot during the game, and leave with a smile after finishing it,” he says. “Although we’ve faced some serious design problems during development, I think it’s been enjoyable overall – we’ve constantly received positive feedback from players and kind help from the media since the start of the project.”

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