“You clever little bastards,” I mutter to myself, for what feels like the thousandth time while playing Lair of the Clockwork God.
What precedes and follows this moment of realisation is, on average, twenty minutes of feeling very stupid. As a rule, I tend not to review puzzle games to a deadline. Trying to beat a complex, single correct solution scenario with no walkthrough available is incredibly stressful. And point and click adventure games are the zenith of obscure puzzling.
I tend to fixate, you see. I become determined that something must be the solution, even though all evidence suggests otherwise. I repeat the same action over and over, expecting a different result. It’s a fun way to see how many pithy quips and unique fail conditions the developers have written, if nothing else.
There’s a reason why LucasArts maintained a telephone tips hotline for its games in the 1990s. But even today, in 2020, point and click games are set in their ways. Tilting towards modernity, Ron Gilbert – the veteran LucasArts developer – included an in-universe tips hotline in Thimbleweed Park when it released in 2017.
In its bid for currency, Lair of the Clockwork God features dual protagonists. In addition to the trusty “look at” verb (always a good place to start if you’re stuck in a point and click game), Ben can turn to Dan and ask what’s going on. Dan will respond with some suggestions about what to do next. But on a couple of occasions, I had to turn to Dan’s real-life counterpart – Dan Marshall, writer, programmer and artist on Lair of the Clockwork God – to ask what to do next. Yes, just like the LucasArts tips hotline. (He has since said he regrets not putting together a walkthrough beforehand. I feel at least a little responsible for that.)
“You clever little pricks,” I grumble, for probably the thousand-and-first time, as Marshall nudges me towards a puzzle’s solution.
It may be clever, but that’s not to say the puzzles in Lair of the Clockwork God are especially highbrow or cerebral. This is a point and click game, after all. You’ll spend a good portion of your time hoarding junk that can’t possibly be useful, combining items that shouldn’t really work together, fiddling with inconspicuous detritus in the environment, and bickering with an assortment of NPCs. (And this is a very British point and click game, so there are also lots of knob jokes.)
The rest of the time is spent platforming. This is also a very clever development. Within the narrative of the Ben and Dan Extended Universe, Ben is a die-hard advocate of point and click adventuring. He carries tat in his bottomless bindle, combines it together to solve puzzles, and wouldn’t dream of doing anything so gauche as jumping. Dan, on the other hand, would dearly love to be a modern indie development darling. He believes pathos-powered, pixel-perfect platforming is the path the pair should pursue.
In Lair of the Clockwork God you get to do both, switching between characters – and playstyles – to simultaneously solve puzzles and progress the adventure. Sometimes that’s together. Sometimes that’s at odds with one another. But it’s always filled with humour, heart, and occasional heroism. (And knob jokes.)
Conceptually, it’s a bit like fusion cuisine. The individual elements are great. The idea of fusing them together seems sound. And yet, you always run the risk that smushing the two together will render the sum inferior to the component parts. Experience tells us that fusion cuisine rarely works.
Thankfully, both facets of Lair of the Clockwork God complement each other. The platforming lurches from super-easy to Super Meat Boy, but it’s an ideal foil for Ben’s deliberate, obstinately slower pace. As Ben combines inventory items to upgrade Dan’s abilities – “If you’re going to do that, at least call it ‘crafting’,” Dan insists – with double jumps, wall grabs, and even a whacking great gun, the game opens up in an almost Metroidvania fashion. That was a pleasant surprise.
From gently introducing this mechanic through opening a door – Dan stands on a floor plate, because platformers don’t use items, while Ben throws a nearby wall switch – this dual-protagonist tango forms the backbone of the game. Later, Dan can carry Ben on piggyback to cart the adventurer to new stuff to interact with, and the pair can even teleport to one another. (And Ben’s grin when he’s on his buddy’s back is just adorable.)
Swapping characters to solve puzzles becomes second nature, even if it’s easy to jumble the controls and stumble at times. As a result, Lair of the Clockwork God is probably the first point and click game that’s actually better on a controller. Except for one bit where you need a keyboard to type into a computer terminal. (The game’s Steam store page lists controller support as “partial” as a result. There’s also a raft of brilliant accessibility features which are gratefully received.)
It’s fusion cuisine, then, but this time it actually works. Not only does it work, but both parts – that could grow hollow or repetitive in isolation – are improved by the other, by the alternation and changes in cadence. It’s a sort of beautiful symbiosis. A metaphor for Ben and Dan’s enduring friendship, perhaps.
“You clever little sods,” I say aloud, to nobody in particular. I’ve lost count of how many times that thought has entered my head.
But what is most clever about Lair of the Clockwork God, and the thing that makes the game so special, is the way it weaves its narrative and themes into the experience. That’s what also makes it such a bloody difficult game to review. I want to tell you about all the brilliant moments! And there are so many of them! I want to shout about all of the tricks and callbacks and creative curveballs Marshall and Ward throw out in the game’s 7-10 hours! But if I do, I’ll rob you of the joy of uncovering them for yourselves.
Broadly speaking, the narrative takes place in the titular lair of the Clockwork God. It’s a computer system that protects the human race from all the apocalypses, but something has gone awry. The machine has forgotten why humanity deserves protecting, and it’s up to Ben and Dan to teach the Clockwork God feelings. To do that, they’ll play through artificial “constructs” – snippets of narrative and gameplay, themed and designed to elicit certain emotions – to restore the Clockwork God’s database of empathy and prevent all the apocalypses.
And that’s all I’m going to say. I don’t want to spoil it. But the themes of Lair of the Clockwork God touch on everything from mortality to game design, and the manner in which these themes are delivered – with some left-field design choices and deliberately dissonant sequences – is exceptional.
Think about that bit in The Witness, where you turn around and realise the starting area was a puzzle the whole time. Or when you piece the case together in Return of the Obra Dinn. Or when you finally get what’s going on in Portal. Or, you know, all of the Stanley Parable. Lair of the Clockwork God is made up of so many of these moments, deftly woven, strung together, and concealed through sleight of hand and ingenious narrative. The fourth wall is smashed, the meta-narrative is bold, and the resulting ride is a wild one.
But other narrative-driven puzzle games revel in their challenge. They invite the player to defy their creator. The experience is gladiatorial and their reward is extrinsic. In Lair of the Clockwork God, you don’t feel like you’re clever because you bested Marshall and Ward’s best-laid plans. They beckon you in. You’re allowed to cotton on. They build you up. They make you feel clever because they’re letting you in on the scheme as it unfolds. It’s collaborative, and it’s kind, and the experience is far richer for it.
“You clever little bastards,” I say directly to Dan Marshall and Ben Ward.
You clever little bastards.
Game: Lair of the Clockwork God
Platform: PC, Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Size Five Games
Developer: Size Five Games
Release Date: February 21, 2020