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It's Time To Get Excited About Clockwork Empires

City building gets personal

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Imagine if so much of the bullshit Peter Molyneux has talked over the years was actually in a game. A simulation game where each tiny human lived their own lives, had their own thoughts and feelings and memories, and behaved accordingly. It’s a claim we’ve heard so often that it’s hard not to dismiss it out of hand. So much so that when Dungeons Of Dredmor developers Gaslamp Games were claiming it, I demanded they stop and prove it to me… They did. Clockwork Empires, a colonial village building sim (of sorts) pulls you in with the cult monster worship, but you stay for the extraordinary AI.

When I first saw that the people who brought me Dredmor were working on something that immediately looked like The Settlers, honestly, my heart sank. Managing stocks of wood and grain is something I’ve perhaps done often enough. Then I got to the end of that trailer last year, saw the cephalopodic demon raising, and realised that perhaps there was more to this than yet another village sim. It turns out, having sat down with the team to watch the game and chat for an hour longer than we were meant to, that there’s an awful lot more than that, too.

Gaslamp spent two years working on the infrastructure for Clockwork Empires. Not the game, but rather creating a pile of tech that would allow them to start making the game, and working out how to get processors to let them do it. These guys are smart. During the development of Dredmor, two of the original three members of the team (they’re now up to “six and a half”) were completing degrees in maths and physics, which they say – as if it’s a failing – meant they weren’t entirely focused. Now they are, and their ambitions for the utterly dissimilar Empires are bigger, broader, and far more complex. In an hour with three of the most warmly enthusiastic and wonderfully strange developers I’ve met, in which the words “It’s a really tough life if you’re a model dating a bee,” were uttered, I’ve become pretty convinced they can do it.

The beginning of the game is very familiar. A green field, a few Victorian-era colonialists pottering around, and a few resources. They’re going to need farmland, materials for building other buildings, storage, and lecterns upon which paperwork can be completed. Paperwork is extremely important to the game’s middle class citizens, something they’d far prefer to be doing than any of the manual labour they foist upon their lower class underlings. Quickly and intuitively, buildings are drawn on the ground, given pleasing L-shapes or howsoever you may want them to stand, and then filled with furniture and d├ęcor. Materials are gathered, shit gets done. It’s all very familiar. Except when programmer (and CEO) Daniel Jacobsen stops playing for a while to tell me about things, the characters have less to do. They start talking to each other, sharing ideas, exchanging memories each has. And a couple of them find they have an interest in ancient relics in common – an unhealthy interest. They start telling others, evangelising their beliefs to them, encouraging them to head into the woods and search for such relics, see if they can have a go at raising these ancient demons they’ve heard about. They start forming cults.

Jacobsen is quick to point out that allowing cults to form isn’t the idea of the game. It’s an idea in the game. Some players, he explains, will want to do whatever they can to distract their peoples from such activities, spot the developing patterns, and indirectly intervene. (You never directly control characters in CE, but rather apply influence on the world through construction.) Cults are dangerous, and what they can unleash could wreak havoc on your settlement. That might spoil things for you.

“We don’t want tornadoes,” explains art director David Baumgart, referring to the sorts of disasters that might bring sudden calamity to something like SimCity. Instead in CE, the idea is that anything that might cause such destruction is because you allowed it to happen. The signs were there, and you didn’t step in. And why wouldn’t you step in? Because your citizens turning to insane cult worship and raising demonic beasts could be rather fun.

This all sounds superb, and where Dredmor hinted at Gaslamp’s love for cramming in huge amounts of peculiar variation, Clockwork Empires appears to be expanding on this enormously. Multiple monstrous or fantastic races will interact with you – build too close to the beach and you might find yourself negotiating peace deals/launching war with the aquatic Fish People – and all manner of ancient oddities could be revealed. And you can be directly involved. Say a cult based around the Obeliskians is attempting to incarnate some horror, and for this they need some bones, you could help out there. Before they figure out that other humans are full of bones, you instead could see to having some of your less favourable inhabitants perhaps meet their end, and then deposit those bones nearby. But this isn’t what made my jaw hang slack during the demonstration.

It wasn’t how the game will adapt to your play-style, offering you missions based on how you’re approaching things, either. You’re a settler for the Empire, “exporting racism” from the British homeland, and you can do things to help the Empire out. In reward for this, they may supply you with extra units of useful types, or perhaps send in troops if you find yourself under attack. It’s a reciprocal relationship. Don’t reciprocate, and things change, different missions or events appear, and you might find yourself without a useful squad of Steam Knights showing up in the midst of an attack. But you may well have triggered useful events based on your friendly relationship with other races, instead. It’s not that bit.

It’s not even the presence of echidnas in the game.

It’s that bit from before, where I said the little humans were “talking to each other, sharing ideas, exchanging memories”. I wasn’t embellishing. The entire time, every colonialist in your village, is developing relationships with others, learning from experiences, and behaving accordingly. And dammit, I think this time it’s really true. I think Gaslamp might be making the game that delivers what so many have fallaciously claimed. They rather proved it to me.

Each character has personality traits, given to them from a large pool. They may be gregarious, shy, obtuse, silly, overbearing, and so on. They may have particular fears or favourites. These traits define how they behave when they encounter others, and indeed encounter the events that occur in the world. And more than that, as they exist, they gain memories of what’s happened to them, and those memories affect them, change them, and change their behaviour and relationships.

No, I didn’t believe it either. I interrupted Daniel mid-flow and told him, “I’ve heard this before! It’s never true!” I put a fire under him. Each character can be clicked on, and their information pulled up. And in there was a list of every significant (and even insignificant) event that’s happened to them. People they’ve spoken to, thoughts they’ve had, things they’ve seen, all listed for you to see at any point. And then he did some debug magic and pulled up a console that showed me how this information was being processed, how it was affecting their particular code. It really seemed to be real.

Further, he showed me a battle situation. Fish People were attacking, so the soldiers in the village reacted. They ran over to the store of weapons, and grabbed guns. Even this was based on behaviour and memory, and he proved it to me, too. They are scripted with the knowledge that they need to defend their village because they’re soldiers. They’re also scripted with the information that guns can kill enemies and make them stop. But it wasn’t a scripted event that in a battle situation, soldiers pick up guns. They figured that out based on their knowledge. Then when in war, they were shooting at the Fishy people, and it wasn’t going well. One particular soldier turned and ran away. Not a big deal at first glance, but then I was shown why she did. It was the dead bodies. She saw too many of her chums dead on the ground, and it freaked her out. She ran away out of fear. Her personality traits, combined with this experience, caused her to behave in this particular way in that moment. And this is all now memories she has, information that will influence her future behaviour, and perhaps be something she’ll share with others.

It is, say Gaslamp, important that their behaviour is believable enough that you’ll begin to commiserate with characters, feel guilt when they suffer. They need to create enough dots close enough together that when you draw the narrative together in your mind, it will connect with you. They want players to recognise the behaviour of units, and name them after real world friends they remind them of. “The next day at school,” says Daniel, “they’ll tell that friend how they died that night, why it happened to them.”

And the behaviour can even surprise the developers. They hand wrote that soldiers can get demoralised in battle, Jacobsen explained. And they hand wrote that drinking too much alcohol can cause characters to lose memories. What they hadn’t written is that soldiers who drink too much after battle are the best units, as they can forget the horrors they faced and might be willing to fight again.

This is really exciting stuff. Of course, it very much remains to be seen how much of it will translate to the player as they play. Such tiny details will be making differences, but will they be tangible when you’re zoomed out to the scale of managing many of them, worrying about maintaining buildings, sorting food issues out so they don’t start eating each other’s corpses (because they may). That’s where this extraordinary detail could get lost, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how they ensure that this information is reaching players in a meaningful and game-influencing way.

But, it does seem to be the case that Gaslamp have, as they claim, created a game in which “the characters can experience trauma.”

Meeting Daniel Jacobsen, David Baumgart, and largest of life, technical director Nicholas Vining, I felt like I was in the middle of the friendliest hurricane. I did have to confess to them to wondering how three such idiosyncratic people ever managed to create a game, let alone decide on one particular game to create. All three feel like individual forces, fiercely intelligent and each uniquely eccentric, endlessly interrupting each other and shouting in horror at suggestions one might make. (A discussion about echidnas took on a life I could never have hoped for.) So even though their friendship and fondness was immediately apparent, how could they ever actually make games?

“Spite-driven development,” declares Nicholas, the other two nodding immediately. I ask them to explain, and Daniel gives me an example. Let’s say he wants rabbits in the game – as the programmer it’s not really within his powers to make this happen. So, he says, he’ll use his poor artistic skills to draw something like a rabbit on the office whiteboard, take a photo, put it on his computer and crop it out, and put that square flat drawing into the game. On seeing this, says David with a look on his face that entirely confirms this isn’t hypothetical, he’ll be so horrified that he’ll be forced to draw a proper one to replace it. Or, says Nicholas, blackmail is employed. He wants echidnas in the game, say – in order for David to craft one, David will pretend he needs a particle system to be coded. Nicholas will reluctantly code particles into the game, and then David will pretend something else Nicholas hasn’t gotten around to is necessary. And yes – I can entirely see how such systems work here.

And the model dating the bee? I can barely remember. Nor can I recall why exactly Nicholas regaled us all with a tale of a zen master training his student by cutting off his thumb, to illustrate… nope, it’s gone. Gaslamp are an extraordinary bunch, and experiencing the genuinely lovely madness of their interaction has helped convince me that they can do something pretty special with Clockwork Empires. They’ve got a big challenge ahead of them, but the groundwork is astonishing stuff. This is one to follow closely, and one that will likely be letting us through an alpha sometime later this year.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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