The Storytellers: Clockwork Empires and creating a canvas for the YouTube generation
In Clockwork Empires, success is measured by the enormity of your failure. This isn't a game about triumphing over the odds and charting a path through rough waters. It's a game about climbing as high up a mountain as you can before leaping off the summit as majestically as you possibly can.
It's a city builder and management sim where you begin as the leader of a band of settlers colonizing the new world, and attempt to guide them through their infancy as a small settlement into a thriving colony.
Disaster is inevitable though, and a big part of the experience is about seeing the unique ways in which your colony eventually, inevitably falls apart.
“The whole thought process is that if you take SimCity, half the fun is watching it go up in flames when you hit the typhoon button, because that's the only time when anything actually happens,” said Nicholas Vining, lead programmer of Clockwork Empires developer Gaslamp Games. “So at some point in the course of normal events, which may include abnormal events, you'll end up destroying your colony by things going out of control. And because you work for the government, you'll get a promotion.”
“If all your colonists just die immediately after landing… you're not really destined for success in the government,” he continued. “On the other hand, if you took your colony, built it to a thriving community of 250 citizens, built a death machine that exploded releasing Elder Horrors From Beyond The Stars killing lots of people and then your citizens went insane and started killing each other… THAT is going to be suitable for a career in government.”
It's set in a sort of comical Elizabethan steampunkish world of gears and steam, but as we talked it became clear that the game is more about telling stories than it is about steampunk imagery or even Elder Horrors From Beyond The Stars. These aren't stories in the traditional narrative sense though.
Clockwork Empires is a game that, at its core, is a canvas for players to tell their own unique stories. In that sense, the game's tight focus on failure seems to be about ensuring every story has a satisfying, climactic conclusion.
“People really like to tell stories,” said Vining. “And our hope from this is that you play Clockwork Empires, and you'll come out and you'll say, 'I had this colony, and everything went right until I built this thing out of these glowing rocks and then we were invaded by fish-people and everyone started chopping each others heads off with nearby meat mutilation implements' and then you'll want to tell that story to your friends. This is gaming for the YouTube world.”
For Gaslamp, the impetus to create a game like this seems to have been born out of a sort of frustration with modern linear games, and their own inability to create them which they readily admit.
“If you play 'Call of Battlefield: Modern Duty' there's exactly one story,” said Vining. “Your dog gets shot and you go through Afghanistan. Everybody has the same experience. Everybody has the same thing happen to them. We wanted to build something that's a bit more of a platform for storytelling.”
Linearity is only one path
“That linear model was really cool before the age of the internet and YouTube,” said Dan Jacobsen, CEO of Gaslamp Games. “When you'd sit around with your friends at lunch time and compare notes about the story, because those [individual] stories were just so hard to reach. But as soon as one person plays one of these games in the modern world, everybody knows how it's going to end because everybody has access to these things now and it ends up on YouTube within 24 hours. We want to surprise people in a way that makes them want to tell stories over and over and over again.”
They were quick to clarify though that those comments don't encapsulate all games.
“There are some indie titles these days that have very beautiful linear storylines,” said Jacobsen, giving Gone Home as an example. “There are very specific storylines where games are the perfect medium to tell that story. There are games where interacting with the world is the way to tell that story. But I think that the full breadth of ways you can tell stories with video games is so much broader than that one avenue. The computers that we use these days, and the other platforms, are becoming powerful enough that that sort of algorithm-based storyline is possible.”
Alogrithms are at the heart of both of Gaslamp Games' titles, Dungeons of Dredmor (a roguelike) and Clockwork Empires, and it seems to be a guiding philosophy of the studio.
“Either we can tell you one story, or you can tell you a thousand stories,” said Jacobsen. “We have to start thinking of games as tools to let you do that.”
Gaslamp Games doesn't imagine themselves as visionaries with an all-new idea though. They list games like Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, and Terraria among their forebears. But it's fascinating to watch the ongoing effect that YouTube is having on the gaming industry, and how developers are changing to not only adapt to the rapid spread of information but also embrace it with a game like Clockwork Empires.