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Wot I Think: Clockwork Empires

Loathecraft

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Could it be that Clockwork Empires [official site], a town management sim concerning a life of toil and struggle against nightmarish entities on a strange new frontier, is so dedicated to its theme that is has deliberately conspired to drive me mad? The thought occurred to me often, as I gibbered and bellowed at my screen in frustration. Was I, too, becoming like one of its colonists, their psyches fraying as they behold death, monstrous transformation and yet another fungus-based dinner?

Alas, not for me the sweet embrace of carefully-designed insanity. My struggles strictly relate to how powerfully frustrating Clockwork Empires is to play.

Clockwork Empires employs similar What If? Victoriana to Sunless Sea/Fallen London. A mid-point between steampunk and eldritch horror, with a maudlin tone and a certain expectation of suffering. In this case, it entails a rag-tag band of imperial colonists founding a settlement on a new frontier. Food must be gathered, trees must be felled, stone must be mined, houses must be built, workshops and public services must be established. Each building must have amenities and furniture individually built in order that resources can be processed and comfort improved so that more settlers are attracted.

As you do all this, you will be harassed by Fish People, risk losing your settlers to strange cults or angry spirits, try to keep the home empire happy in order that they send you more people, and generally manage the well-being of your workforce.

Much was made a couple of years ago about how your colonists would have personalities of a sort, built up over time and affected by the events of the game. Talking to a friend might appease their fear or frustration, or they might break away and form a sinister cult, or seeing a dead body might result in life-long trauma. All of these things would lead to changed behaviour. Every settler would be an individual collection of memories and knowledge.

I look back at our exciting 2014 interview with the developers, and little they promised then is actually absent. It’s just that almost none of it matters.

Yes, you can click on any settler and see a long list of events they’ve faced, friends they’ve met, complaints they have or traumas they’ve experienced. The game is, without doubt, cataloguing almost everything. But it all boils down to, essentially, two things: how much of the day they are willing to spend working, and whether they’ll sporadically flip out, which again impacts upon working hours. If you’ve come here looking for the gonzo unpredictability of Dwarf Fortress and its infinite micro-stories, you won’t find it.

The critical exception to this is an assortment of eldritch events, some of which you have some control over via easily-missed text pop-ups, others of which are essentially random nuisances to be waited out. Weird meteor showers, ghost attacks, and, most commonly, raids from neighbouring Fishpeople.

The sporadic formation of dark cults is probably the headline act though: one of your settlers might run off to found a sinister order in the woods, and will recruit more to it unless you take action, via the military or your own church. Failing or choosing not to clamp down on things can result in the arrival of big ‘orrible monsters, as indeed can trying to clamp down on it.

Though disaster frequency can be abated by building one of everything, Clockwork Empires’ ethos is that shit happens, and if you’re not equipped to deal with it, you’ll lose a few people and a few buildings may need repairing afterwards. The empire will ship more settlers from home, workers will fix buildings, bodies will be buried and normal service will be resumed.

The key to success/survival is not any individual’s needs, but to gradually build more and better services in a relatively familiar town-builder fashion. I’m not telling Clockwork Empires off for that – I like town-builder games – but simply trying to adjust expectations. This is a building game, not The Sims On The Mountains Of Madness.

Frankly, the real Clockwork Empires is exactly the kind of tiny acorn > mighty oak prospect I enjoy. The critical problem is it suffers from a killer combo of a heinous user interface and a generous smattering of bugs. These two factors regularly combine into buildings not getting built, and it’s not always clear whether it’s the player’s fault or the game’s.

If I was to sum up Clockwork Empires in a single observation, it would be that this is exactly the sort of game where, before you can replace them, you have to wait for someone to starve to death because they’ve got stuck inside the scenery.

This leads me onto a key design decision in CE that has most harmed my psychological well-being while playing it. You cannot force anything to be built. Settlers – divided fairly pointlessly into Overseers and small squads of Labourers working under them – will choose which of whatever orders you’ve given they will work on next. You can’t directly order someone to go work on a specific construction, but have to hope that they’ll get it to quickly. Yes, you can cancel all other requests in order to artificially make one particular thing a priority, but this is inelegant and disruptive compared to the more obvious choice of assigning an Overseer to a new build.

I say this because assigning Overseers is a system used by all other functions of the game – you assign one to command soldiers in the barracks, or grind out planks in the carpenter’s shop, or man the bar, or work in the barber’s shop which, mysteriously, heals hurt units rather than cuts their hair. Assigning Overseers is one of the key mechanics of the game, but you can’t assign Overseers to construction, which is the key mechanic of the game.

My foremost anecdote from Clockwork Empires is not the time a walking obselisk invaded, or when 25% of my settlers turned into Fishpeople, but of regularly screaming “WHY WON’T YOU BUILD IT?” That is the Clockwork Empires experience. So long as it’s not a bug – and too often it is – an ultimately logical answer can be found. You’ve got too many other tasks on the go, your people are so unhappy that they take afternoons off, you’ve run out of planks or stone or bricks or iron or maize or bric-a-brack or or or or. For me, the trouble is that the UI buries too much vital information too deep.

There is not, for instance, an icon to show that a requested building isn’t being made because you lack x, y, or z. You have to notice that it’s not happening, manually click on it, see what it needs, switch to another menu and compare that to what you have in your town’s inventory, then switch to another building and request that more of x, y or z is made. Often, x, y or z require first making u, v or w in a different building entirely. And that will first require harvesting r, s or t, or trading for it in a building which first requires v, s and y to construct. In most circumstances, the game does not alert you that r, s, t, u, v, w, x, y or z are missing.

That’s the sort of game CE is really – using a Minecraft-style dependencies crafting system, extrapolated into complex arrays of workbenches, desks, stoves and kilns split across various specialist rooms, each of which need people assigned and kept happy by having other specialist rooms with people assigned and cranking out crafted products from a complex array of workbenches, desks, stoves and kilns.

Every object in every building has to be ordered and built individually, and none of it happens automatically. For example, labourers will not build a bed you’ve requested in a house unless you additionally go tell the carpenter’s shop to make a flat-packed bed kit, and if there is not enough wood to make that, no-one will go gather that wood without your specific directive to.

Even if you do, it’s a total gamble whether a workforce will take it up in favour of something else that needs doing. Making almost anything involves just a few too many steps for my tastes, or rather it’s that each of those steps involves burrowing into fiddly sub-menus and then a whole lot of waiting to boot. Even then, bugs mean it may never happen.

I like the game at CE’s heart, but interacting with it is simply unpleasant. Were it slick and reliable perhaps I could bear its extreme micro-management and unhelpful UI, but the fact is that it’s currently strewn with technical errors, most of which boil down to, once again, build orders not happening. Meteor storms, cult outbreaks and merman invasions are its highlight, yes, but ultimately they are just colourful interruptions to a deeply frustrating normality.

Updates have been promised, at least. It’s not at all impossible that UI updates and excising a few of the construction stages could give it the flow and fluidity it so desperately needs, but after quite some time in early access, the road ahead of Clockwork Empires still seems so very long.

Clockwork Empires is out now on Windows via Steam and Humble for $30/£23/€28.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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