Clockwork Empires Preview

Oh, it's my monstrous fish neighbor. Hello, neighbor!

Interesting, quirky games dominate GDC these days. Lots of your favorite blockbuster developers flock to the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve brought along their new Assassin’s Creed for hands-on meetings with the press. Naughty Dog’s developers might have been in attendance to give a panel on level design in The Last of Us, but that doesn’t mean they’ll say anything about a potential sequel. In a way, that’s an especially welcome trend as indie gaming rises up to capture the hearts and minds of consumers everywhere.

Still, to capture attention at any conference you need a hook. Something has to be really intriguing and interesting about your game in order to get exhausted cynics like myself to show up and follow through with a preview. Thankfully, I found that in a hotel a few blocks away from GDC. There, Gaslamp Games introduced me to the awkward and esoteric Clockwork Empires which will probably scratch an itch for the nerdiest of gamers out there.

And I use the term “nerd” with love. I am a nerd. I was in symphonic and jazz band through high school. I actually won an award in my college freshman dorm for “always in his room” and “always goes home on the weekends.” I drew Mr. Rochester’s secretly insane wife Bertha in a moo moo on a blank cap and wore it while annoyingly undermining everything my English teacher said about Jane Eyre in high school. It’s that snobbishly under-impressed attitude that I loved in my brief glimpse at Clockwork Empires. Turning history and literature on its head makes way too much sense to me.

Art Director David Baumgart walked me through the title. While I met with all three of the developers present at GDC, David enthusiastically introduced me to each of Clockwork Empire’s mechanics which blend The Sims with Anno, Victorian sensibility with the knowledge that imperialism has grossly failed the British empire, and normal frontier afflictions like dysentary with potentially hazardous portals to alternate dimensions.

Players start the game with a typical band of pilgrims, helping those hapless explorers to set up work stations, farms, and eventually graveyards as colonists die out. While you have control over certain elements like the construction of a mine or determining how far a naturalist explores the village’s immediate surroundings, most of your citizens will follow their own volition to seek out others and discuss their feelings which get displayed in Sims-style thought and speech bubbles and lengthy memory chains stored in a description field. If one of your citizens sees someone get shot, they’ll hold onto that and it’ll have an effect on their future actions too.

You might feel eager to progress your village into unknown territory. You could send the naturalist out only to discover an entire race of fish people, but if your population is scared of these strange beings the military will react for you and start a war. Slowing growing your population and reaching out to others allows trade and societal connections to flourish, though I didn’t see this during my hands-off preview time. David offered to let me play, but some elements like the UI were still early and Clockwork Empires is conceptually difficult enough to wrap your head around.

Watching the people go about their day was entertaining, especially when they fell asleep under work stations because I was too busy asking questions and David hadn’t constructed living quarters yet. Comparisons to Dwarf Fortress got thrown around early in our talk and I figured that spectating would give me a better understanding of the title. In the end, it did. I’d like to have seen the monstrous Quag’garoth appear, but if you’ve spent days and weeks growing your frontier freaks into a nice society you might want to ensure a benevolent, but destructive demon doesn’t rip the township apart.

Clockwork Empires presents itself as an experiment, but a successful town will likely require quite an investment of time and energy. You could hop on and click a few things, but playing the game seriously and watching for small hints as to what the population needs will take concentration or a friend. Something could go wrong at any moment, but even mistakes will result in entertaining and unexpected stories which you’ll want to share with other players or anyone willing to take the plunge on this unknown.

David related, for example, that opening a portal and appeasing Quag’garoth is totally possible so long as you’ve collected enough bone meal for the monster to eat. You’ll have had to gather all that in the middle of town to present it like an offering to boot. All in all, Clockwork Empires seems exceedingly ambitious for the team at Gaslamp but they’re likely nerdy enough to pull it off. I didn’t see multiplayer in action either, but David said that you can actually give artifacts to rival citizens to attract Quag’garoth to other towns too.

Maybe it’d be better to bury the damn thing! With great power, comes great responsibility after all (that’s Voltaire, not Spider-Man by the way). While I normally look to the GDC Play area for an indie game to champion for the rest of the year, Clockwork Empires did the trick. Even if the thought of Victorian-era colony rearing sounds more painful than reading another Bronte novel, give the game a chance before you say the concept turns you off faster than Mr. Mason and his lawyer.

Clockwork Empires is slated for release in Spring 2014. You can learn more and sign up to be notified of release at Gaslamp’s website.