Review code provided with many thanks to Big Games Machine.
At the beginning of October 2023, Little Learning Machines made an entry in Early Access on Steam. The game tells the story of Imogen, a crystal from the cosmos that crash lands on an island planet full of ancient inanimate robots. Well, at first, Imogen has no idea of the little robots called Animo that populate the place. All they can see is sand and lots of it. And as the crystal that Imogen is made of is a bit brittle, too much movement just chips part off. Which makes life, lying around on the sand surrounded by sea, very boring.
It’s quite surprising and pleasing when one piece of their crystal lands in a blank animo, and it starts moving after that. Finally, a companion! Imogen soon finds out that the robots can be trained. They’re a blank canvas at first, but giving them simple commands lets them learn how to do things.
Training the Animo
Training in Little Learning Machines is done in ‘the cloud’ where you build up their commands based on love points they can acquire by doing that or by instilling fear for doing things that will harm them or are unwanted. This may sound a bit strange, but it’s rather fun to train them like this. For example, you give them 100 love points for their interaction with dogs. Or for picking up crystal fragments. Or one fear point for becoming stuck in deep water. You have to give the commands yourself and build them in a sort of string with several variables.
The choices you have to make have to be in a logical sequence. First, choose love or fear, then choose the source. This can be actions, movement, the state the robot is in or one of the items that are to be found on the island. The next choice is Interaction. Depending on the source you chose it varies. If you chose an item for a source, like crystal parts, you can only go for interaction, meaning your robot will pick them up if it finds them. But if you’ve chosen actions or movement, you get the next choice for other steps, like ‘hold onto’, ‘picking up’, ‘dropping’, ‘destroying’, ‘talking’, and ‘using’. I hope this makes sense, but I’d almost say you have to try it for yourself.
First Adventure: Dog Bone Island
By the time your first Animo (mine is named BillyBob) has mastered picking up crystal pieces, it’s time to get to work on a new island, Dog Bone Island. It’s a place that has new and exciting things to explore: cacti that will hurt when bumping into them, a ball that you can kick away, pesky fences that block the way, lampposts and most important of all, dogs! Plus, you find another Animo.
On Dog Bone Island, you get several tasks that your Animo have to master, like Moving towards the dog and pet three times, Avoiding cacti and petting the dog three times. Or Collect the crystals while navigating the hills and Kick or throw the ball for the dog three times. You have to check all of them with at least one of your animo, so retreat to the cloud and build little test platforms.
The learning platforms in Little Learning Machines can be populated with the things the Animo will meet on Dog Bone Island, and with the commands, you can teach them to pet the dog and so on. Keep in mind that training them takes time. At first, they won’t understand what to do with the ball, but eventually, doing it once teaches them they get love, and they come back for more.
A Cute Cottage and a Sawing Mill
When you conquer Dog Bone Island, new islands open up. There’s Cottage Cove with a lovely little cottage and an Autonimo, which is an Animo that already has a task: watering flowers. And we get Harvest Hill. Full of brow leaf trees, a big sawing station and a mean-looking pumpkin. Every island has new items that, once discovered, are available on the training cloud and the main island of Little Learning Machines.
Moulding Their Neural Network
Every action you teach the Animo moulds their neural network and, ultimately, and it forms unique personalities. The Animo seem to be quite complex creatures, and you need to know more about them than just the way to input commands. The further you go, the more important it is, for example, that Animo have a certain range of vision, and not every Animo has the same range. They see everything in a grid and have observations for every cell in this grid, and can perceive up to four objects in each cell. A lot of information is thrown at you in the tutorial, but don’t be daunted by that: you can just have fun with the commands and trial and error.
Extra Files and Steam Deck
It was a surprise that, when installing Little Learning Machines, some files were downloaded to my PC. The developers tell us that they are using some machine-learning libraries. These libraries (Python and PyTorch) are not commonly used in gaming and are currently primarily used in scientific applications. They play a part in letting players train the real neural networks of their own little learning machines. Currently, they aren’t installed at the same time you are installing the game in Steam, and you have to give permission for that. I haven’t had any effect of these downloads outside of the game, but it is rather surprising to get the question. If you want to know more about it, see the discussion in the Steam Community.
It is also the main reason Little Learning Machines won’t work on the Steam Deck, and I’m hoping they will ultimately find a way to include it in the main download. Making the game portable would be great!
Excellent Text Writing and Great Soundtrack
What made the game extra fun for me was the text writing: brilliant lines for Imogen, quirky and funny. It hooked me on the game from the get-go!
A special mention should go to the soundtrack, which is relaxing and fun. Robbie Duguay from Toronto, Canada, made an hour-long of joyful music themed for each island that would. It reminds me of Animal Crossing music, which you can instantly identify for the hour of day and the season. Put it in your daily reel and relax while you work. You can find it here, and you can also buy it as DLC on Steam.
Jog Those Grey Cells
Little Learning Machines is a fun game, and the developers have taken great care in creating a great-looking world with diverse islands. It’s fun to tinker about with the Animo, and find new challenges on each new island. Collecting Animo is a good way to keep the interest going, too, as they look so helpless that you can’t help but love them. The more islands you uncover, the more items you can use in training and the home island too.
I did find that programming the Animo is something you need to jog the grey cells for, but once they are programmed, it’s such fun to see them go about. As they unlock accessories as they go, you can even make them more unique.
Even in Early Access, Little Learning Machines works well and seems complete. The developers intend to work on even better localisation, better balancing for the difficulty of the quests, new cosmetics, and new interactions for items.