- Game: Size Five's Lair of the Clockwork God
- Release Month: February.
- Quick Look: N/A.
- Started: 16/12.
- Completed: 17/12.
I've had quite a bit of drama with this one: first I had to disqualify it from this feature because I couldn't get the PC version to run properly, tossing a mea culpa in the "Welcome to Go! Go! GOTY!" type staging area linked at the bottom there, and then it suddenly dropped in price to something very reasonable on the Switch and suddenly manflesh was back on the menu, as it were. Lair of the Clockwork God, to introduce it for the first time again, is the newest entry in a series of adventure games that occurred just prior of the 2010s Indie boom and featured creators Ben Ward and Dan Marshall as what I can only assume are surlier and less morally restrained versions of themselves. The first two games, Ben There, Dan That! and Time Gentlemen, Please!, were pure point-and-click adventure games: affectionate pastiches of the glorious '90s no-death LucasFilm era of examining objects, picking them up, and using them on other objects.
Lair of the Clockwork God is a bit different. Dan, the smaller of the two, has decided that he'd prefer to get in on the melancholy Indie puzzle-platformer racket, eschewing inventories and talking for collectibles and precise jumping controls. Ben, who is steadfast in not leaving his comfort zone of adventure gaming and its assorted hoary paraphernalia, rejects any notion of letting his feet leave the ground and will proceed with pointing and clicking as per usual, thank you very much. This creates a dichotomy of gameplay logistics between the two, though as before they must still work together to make any progress. The story is some deliberate nonsense about all the Apocalypses happening at once and the duo teaching a godlike mechanical entity human emotions to restore its empathy towards mankind before it will deign to put a stop to the world's imminent annihilation. It adroitly works as a narrative framing device for a series of vignettes and exploration sequences across disparate environments: some long and involved, requiring both partners to shift their weight, while others exist as brief one-off jokes or are exclusive to one character's set of skills while the other sits it out and snarks from the sidelines.
Dan's sections, as the would-be platformer hero, tend to involve a lot of tricky sequences where he hops between disappearing blocks and under lasers as they blink on and off; it's nothing particularly new or exciting, and while a lot of jokes are made at the genre's expense the platforming is also played relatively straight as a considerable portion of the game's content. Ben, meanwhile, has a point-and-click interface similar to the streamlined one introduced in Monkey Island 3 where most of the offered functions are purely contextual besides the universal "look at" and "use with inventory item." Ben cannot (or rather, refuses to) jump or drop even short distances, so much of the time Dan has to push blocks around or activate lifts to get Ben over to hotspots he can interact with, eventually allowing him to piggyback at the cost of a smaller jump. Later on, the game provides a number of different conveniences and upgrades for one or both of the protagonists: Ben can mix inventory items to craft platforming gear for Dan, for instance, the first of which are a pair of gas-producing shoes that allow for double-jumps.
The greatest strength of the original Ben and Dan games was the comedy: it's not easy being funny in a video game, and being funny about video games in a fourth-wall-breaking sense is even tougher, yet these two knuckleheads are consistently amusing throughout their whole series, with Lair of the Clockwork God a particular highlight. It helps that the Indie gaming satire is honed to an edge a Ginsu would covet, riffing on the past decade of Indie development that didn't quite pass the duo by (as far as I know, they've each been working independently on other projects since Time Gentlemen, Please!). So you'll get the expected (and some unexpected) jokes about "time-saver" microtransactions, pretentious walking simulator dialogue, "crafting," middleware companies, corporate sponsorship, loss.jpg, and the sheer antipathy most players feel towards sliding block puzzles. Yet despite plumbing these tired veins, the quality level of the humor is high throughout, balancing the persistent disdainful commentary (mostly from Ben, since this newfangled Indie Darling scene is something he wants nothing to do with) with physical comedy, really dumb puns, weaponized misanthropy, Gordian knot-style solutions to problems, and one unfortunately relatable sequence where the pair contend with how old everything makes them feel after convincing a judgemental social media feed full of slang they don't recognize to allow them into a nightclub. The writing is trenchant throughout, albeit very British; expect some colloquialisms and other mild culture shock if playing from outside the UK.
I wrote somewhere, now no doubt deleted, that Lair of the Clockwork God feels like this year's Horace. Both are evident passion projects that took their UK-based developers some time to put together, at least conceptually. Both balance exceedingly tough platforming (though there's a difficulty slider for that aspect in LotCG; there's a great deal of accessibility options, in fact) with some story-heavy interludes and puzzles. Both have narratives that twist and turn in ways almost impossible to predict, throwing you into one bizarre situation after another. Both even have incongruous 3D first-person sequences. And in both cases, while the action gameplay wasn't perfect, each has brilliantly witty writing, no shortage of inventive ideas, and a mostly cohesive and involved story that made it worth seeking out and playing regardless. I had a great time with this one, and it's killing me that I'm not allowed to spoil half the goofs to explain why.
GOTY Verdict: Right near the top of the list, going mano-a-mano with Paradise Killer for the number three slot. Gotta figure out if idiosyncrasy trumps dick jokes.