Easily one of this year’s wittiest and most infuriatingly clever games, Lair of the Clockwork God is out for Switch and Xbox One today , and PS4 when “business reasons” have been sorted out. Blending together the trappings of a classic point and click adventure, replete with snarky dialogue and plenty of offbeat inventory management and item combining, with an indie darling platformer, it sees Ben and Dan having to save the world from all of the apocalypses. Yes, all of them.
It’s great, having received glowing reviews from critics and gamers alike, and now it’s no longer trapped behind needing to boot up a PC. There’s even a short visual novel that’s bundled in for good measure, offering another little dose of comedy gold.
So with that in mind, I sat down to chat with Dan Marshall about pretty much everything except the game that he’s trying to promote. Early topics in our meandering natter included how he’s been trying to eliminate AA batteries from his life and has a keyboard with a little solar panel in it (which in turn meant that he’s had to rearrange his office so he’s sat by the window to give it reliable power), and his old school razor. Obviously.
It’s not just that it’s massively cut down on plastic (the original motivation), but it also gives him a better shave, and above all of that, “It feels cool,” he said. “You know that bit in Predator where he’s shaving in the jungle and you can hear it scraping with this amazing Chrrrrk! noise? He’s shaving with a machete in the jungle, and it feels like that, because it’s just you and a raw bit of metal.”
But… Lair of the Clockwork God, right? It’s a point & click adventure that’s jumped into an era where point & click adventures are far from common by way of an indie platformer.
“Basically this is a platformer, but it has the sensibilities of a point & click adventure game. I think that sort of makes sense, but you know, I don’t even know if people remember what point & click games are anymore. There was Thimbleweed Park, and everyone went ‘Oh brilliant, a proper point & click game’, but that’s the last one I can really remember doing big numbers. Jenny LeClue did big numbers, but that was in the last six months or so, so you go back to Thimbleweed Park which was actually quite a long time ago now.”
Clockwork God has, in many ways, followed the path that the genre as a whole has, of trying to take the idea of the point & click and mould it into or fuse it with something else. For Dan, that started with the simplification of inventory management and world interactions being reduced to a single click on objects. Clockwork God goes back to the original form in some ways with an interaction wheel, but forges ahead in others, with that platformer hybrid.
“The core of all the problems in development were caused by, I’m going to say, gravity,” he laughed. “In point & click adventure games you don’t really need gravity, because you’ve got that slightly 3D space to work in, you’ve got depth to the screen that you haven’t got in a platformer, so you’ve got a design issue there where Ben can basically walk past everything and his interaction wheel will become available. Then there’s things clipping through the floor, things breaking and whatever is always the downside of platforming. Physics and all that.
“I don’t know why, but gravity’s always going to cause problems. Anything where you can jump is immediately setting yourself up for a handful of different issues.”
So, does he have a renewed admiration of Shigeru Miyamoto? “Oooh, yeah! I mean… Jump Man. You’ve immediately set yourself up.”
Lair of the Clockwork God is coming to console by way of Ant Workshop, handling all the tasks of porting it to console, filing the various bits of paperwork and shepherding it through certification.
“I love making games,” Dan said. “It was my hobby, my passion, and now it’s my job, but i like dreaming up stupid worlds and making fun interesting things happen, and as part of that I can just about bear putting together main menus – they’re incredibly boring. Making games so that they save data and load it in is also incredibly boring. I can just about cope with those for the sake of the thing as a whole, but what I could not even begin to be bothered with is to do all the code to make it work on console.
“Changing all the icons so that they’re PlayStation icons? That is not fun work. That is not for me. A lot of people see that as a really fun challenge, and optimising is as well – obviously it runs really well on PC, but it’s not going to necessarily run great on Switch, so how do you make that happen, working out where the problems are in the code, where the code’s slowing you down, and all that sort of stuff. It’s not something I get any enjoyment out of.
“Also, last time I heard, passing certification on any console, let alone on three of them, is a big hassle. THere’s all these rules like, if you’ve holding down the X button on controller 2 and turn off controller 1, does it break the game? All of these rules you’ve got to follow, and obviously Tony and Ant Workshop know all those rules. They know what they need to do in order to pass certification. With me it would be a constant back and forth because of something I’ve forgotten or didn’t read properly in a document.”
So… with the game coming to consoles, obviously the burning question on everyone’s lips is if there will be free upgrades to next-gen?
“Oh! Shit. That I don’t even know. Doesn’t it just… my understanding was that it just automatically works?” Dan replied. Once I assured him that this is actually the case, he continued, “Oh good… well then yes, of course it will work, but if I could charge as a satire, I would. If I could charge £99.99 for a next-gen upgrade, then I would. I think I would think it’s a really funny joke, until I actually come to doing it, and then I would think it was stupid and stop.”
One equally banal question about ray tracing, he said, “Do you know what? I was thinking the other day about one of the stupid things I ran out of time to put in. You know how every game comes out on PS4 and Xbox Whatevertheyrecalled, and about three weeks later they release a photo mode. I assume it’s some marketing thing? Because why is a photo mode not in there at launch? It’s not a massively complicated thing to be doing.
“I did have this idea of doing a photo mode for Clockwork God, so you can just slap a load of filters on top of it, but it’s just this pixel art game. So all the screenshots are going to look exactly the same, but with these filters. That was a cut thing I thought I would do… maybe I still will? Sounds like fun.”
Obviously every game developer right now must have an opinion on the next generation, but outside of being wowed by Ratchet & Clank and having to console himself over the fact that he’s just one person and Insomniac is hundreds, Dan does have some thoughts on the next generation.
“You know what, given that it’s my job, I don’t really know anything about it. I can’t get enthused about flat statistics. […] I feel like I couldn’t even tell you what the new Xbox is called; I’ve got so confused with Xbox titles. […]
“This is probably a bad analogy, but the Microsoft console naming comes across a little bit like government COVID advice. I had a handle on it at the start, but then they kept on dripping more incremental nonsense at me, and now I genuinely couldn’t tell you what bubble I’m in. I genuinely don’t know how many people I’m allowed to meet with and from what households now, in the same way I couldn’t tell you what the last three iterations of Xbox were called.”
Looking to the future and what he’s taken away from making and marketing the game, Dan said, “I think, weirdly, the thing I’ve learnt about making Clockwork God is that just because you’ve made an amazing game doesn’t mean it’s going to sell amazingly well.” Certainly a lot has changed since he broke onto Steam with Time Gentlemen, Please! in 2009, and just as much since The Swindle in 2015, in terms of indie devs be able to grab the spotlight. “I feel like if Clockwork God had come out five, six, seven years ago, I would have made a lot more money out of it, just on Steam, than I have done in 2020.”
Anyone that follows him on Twitter will know that he’s been banging on about the game’s positive reviews on Steam, about the need for gamers to follow through on buying games they put on their Wishlist, and so on. There’s still plenty of Twitter-y witticisms, but a lot of necessary self-promotion as well. “It does feel like I’ve been banging this drum since February,” he said, “and hopefully now that the console versions are coming out, I can shut up a bit and it’ll have a much bigger audience.”
Somewhat philosophically, that could be down to the genre and style of game and how people consume their media these days. It’s something that’s feeding into what he’s working on next:
“The thing I’d been thinking about for the entire development of Lair of the Clockwork God was making a The Swindle spiritual sequel. That idea was going round in my head, and I was having amazing ideas for how it was all going to hang together, but I was so burnt out that I just couldn’t do it.
“But looking at it from the point of what’s going to sell better, what’s going to look better? Something that’s procedurally generated; something that’s funny; something that people will play on Twitch. Fall Guys is doing amazingly well because people are just sharing their stupid pratfalls. It’s that kind of virality you’re looking for. No-one’s going to share them solving a puzzle in Clockwork God compared to them falling over funnily in Fall Guys.”
DINO GAME UPDATE: Got stomping and roaring in as ways of damaging humans. It works really well, there's a nice feeling of playing as a wild animal now, rather than just some platform game character.
All placeholder, obvs pic.twitter.com/24fUvJgz2S
— Dan Marshall (@danthat) July 23, 2020
“So I spent a bit of time thinking, and I like the idea of playing as a dinosaur – I’ve never really done that before. What would it be like not to control a human, but a wild animal where you don’t have total control? Then I saw one of my kid’s toys – this is true, it sounds like one of those lies that people tell, but my kid’s got a Jurassic World toy and it’s like a little dinosaur with a big head, and it’s amazing. I saw it on our bathroom floor, and I was like ‘That’s it!'”
“A dinosaur skittering into a load of humans and sending them tumbling is immediately shareable and interesting. So the thing I’ve learnt is to make something that’s got that little bit more virality to it, a little bit more randomness to it where people can play with the game.”
My disappointment at not getting a The Swindle sequel aside, I’m looking forward to seeing how that comes together, and Dan has been sharing both exciting updates about leaping and roaring and extremely boring updates about ladders and refactoring on his Twitter.
But while he’s busy working on exciting new dinosaur games, that just means there’s plenty of time to enjoy his most not-so-dinosaur-filled game, Lair of the Clockwork God, on more platforms.
Thanks to Dan for chatting with us, and apologies to Dan for having to butcher our 50-ish minute chat to fit this still very big article. Lair of the Clockwork God is out today for Switch and Xbox One, and sometime soon for PlayStation 4 with a capital ‘S’.