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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?

Your soldiers run and grab guns, like the good little militia they are. They start popping off rounds at the fish people, but the fish people are tenacious. They take down one of your soldiers. Then two. Then three.

The fourth soldier? Well, she's now surrounded by the bodies of her dead compatriots, and her brain has studiously stored this information in her head. Seriously, you can pull up a list of the last things her brain has "remembered," and those deaths are in there. Her resolve finally breaks, and she runs away.

Not only does she run away, but after a few minutes standing behind a house and looking haunted by her recent past, she walks over to your village's stash of supplies and starts pounding alcohol — drinking to forget.

We're all connected, man

Clockwork Empires is full of small, emergent moments like this. Like Dungeons of Dredmor (or, for a more apt comparison, Dwarf Fortress), the game looks to be built on so many interconnecting systems that eventually crazy and "unpredictable" events bloom from sheer chaos.

And at the heart of it all is this memory system. Sure, it's rudimentary AI at best. Sure, we've seen similar (though arguably simpler) systems at play in, for instance, The Sims or The Elder Scrolls' Radiant AI. But as I said, we're drawing closer and closer to that arbitrary line between what constitutes real human behavior and what we can chalk up to programming. That's a scary (and admittedly intriguing) line, when it comes to games.

The end result is a game that's tailor-made for telling stories, even though it has no concrete story itself. Clockwork Empires looks like the type of game where you can't wait to go to class or work and tell your friends about the crazy stuff that happened in your village, only to have one of them respond with something equally crazy that you didn't even know could happen.

That type of game doesn't come around often, and Clockwork Empires is still a fair ways off from release. If, however, Gaslamp can hit even half of what my demo seemed to promise? This is going to be a game to watch out for.


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