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Preview: Clockwork Empires mashes-up Lovecraft, city building, and long memories

Hayden Dingman | May 14, 2014
We're getting to this uncomfortable point in games where our distinctions between AI and realistic human behavior are increasingly arbitrary. I don't mean to sound like a kook--we're still probably decades away from true artificial intelligence. But there may come a day where the objects I'm controlling or killing or experimenting with in video games are smart enough to be considered almost human. And what are the ramifications there?

We're getting to this uncomfortable point in games where our distinctions between AI and realistic human behavior are increasingly arbitrary. I don't mean to sound like a kook — we're still probably decades away from true artificial intelligence. But there may come a day where the objects I'm controlling or killing or experimenting with in video games are smart enough to be considered almost human. And what are the ramifications there?

What I'm trying to say is that Clockwork Empires makes me uncomfortable — and it's not because the game draws on the Lovecraft mythos for influence.

Beware the fish people

Clockwork Empires is a city builder set in a pseudo-Victorian/British colonial period. On the surface that's not too exciting. We've had quite a few historical city builders lately — Banished, 1849, and now this. That's a few too many games where I'm gathering and managing resources in hopes of building up my tiny frontier town. At least, for me.

But where the other two games strive for some sort of historical accuracy, Clockwork Empires uses Victorian-era horror and science fiction as a jumping off point. As in, jumping off a cliff because you joined a cult and went mad after summoning the old gods to your weekly meetings.

If there could be such a thing as the "Saints Row of city builders," it's Clockwork Empires. Your civilians can do drugs. Your civilians can drink to excess. Your civilians can eat human flesh. Your civilians can start holding esoteric meetings when bored, eventually drawing out the fish people to come attack your village.

Yes, fish people.

It's a crazy and incredibly weird game, which is no surprise given its pedigree — this is the same team that made Dungeons of Dredmor, probably the silliest roguelike of all time. And I don't mean that as an insult. Dungeons of Dredmor's humor only masked an impressive technical competence and a game with tons of depth and complexity.

And the same looks to be true here.

A perfect set of vacation memories

Every character in the game has a "memory." The developers of Clockwork Empires, the team at Gaslamp Games, are so nonchalant about this feature that it doesn't even register immediately during my demo.

This is where Clockwork Empires starts to get real weird for me. Every single event in each character's life is tracked, small and large. This process then helps the characters in question draw conclusions for future, similar events. Characters learn. They adapt.

For the sake of example (and because it's the example I saw in my demo), let's bring back the fish people.

So the fish people rise up from their nearby lake and enter your town, tridents in hand, gills flapping in the breeze, the scent of putrid lake-bottom wafting in your nostrils. They're here to murder your fledgling village, and it's up to your soldiers to stop them.

 

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