As I sat down to preview Gaslamp’s Clockwork Empires, I was met by three developers feverishly discussing the Victorian era in all of its opulent historical background. CEO Daniel Jacobsen, Art Director David Baumgart, and Technical Director Nicholas Vining knew their stuff. As an English major I was enthused—sitting in a room of game developers who reminisced on reading Dickens and Tennyson—but I was more intrigued when they told me that all of this was inspiration for their game. Everything from canonical literature, steampunk, ludicrous invention, and even the occult were all used in the game not merely out of the idea of absurdity, but out of an actual historical mindset held in perhaps one of the most long-winded but fascinating literary periods.
Set in a Victorian steampunk era, Clockwork Empires is a sandbox city-builder that puts the player in the mind of a bureaucratic entity sent forth to colonize and expand the empire. As the game starts, you have nothing more than a few villagers and supplies. In order to get supplies to establish a colony you must begin to set focused tasks for the villagers to complete. The neat thing is that each villager has a unique personality that makes them predisposed to complete certain tasks—so if Henry enjoys the ocean, he may be more likely to work as a fisherman. They also get amazing names like Squeers, or you can name them after your best friends and figure out ways to make their lives horr… I mean lovely.
The villagers also allow for a certain narratives to develop in the game through how they interact with both you and the other AIs; their personalities bring in circumstances and emotions unique to themselves alone. Villager abilities are based on classes and skillsets, yet another factor that decreases the need for micro-management in the game. For example, the middle class characters control the lower class workers to have them do certain tasks. They also have memories that can span over the entire length of the game or can be forgotten by the excessive drinking of alcohol or use of opium (yes, you can grow poppy farms) both of which can also help reduce the chance villagers have of going insane. Overall, memories and their ability to be recalled vary depending on the emotional state of each villager, and emotional states, as we all know, can be changed by substance use.
There is even a bit of Lovecraftian horror thrown in the mix—fish people can become angered if the oceans are overfished and will begin to ransack your town, monsters will be summoned and destroy everything you hold dear, or your villagers can form a creepy masochistic cult. In this respect, even your own villagers can turn on you; if villagers gather together and share an interest in the super natural “…there’s a solid chance that they can form a cult, preform evil rituals, and summon demons,” explains Jacobson.
Over time the frontier, initially covered in a black fog, clears as your villagers begin to explore the area. You can build customizable structures like farms, homes, and taverns and eventually expand into building a military infrastructure. Guards can be upgraded to wear metal suits and eventually armies can be assembled to attack or defend your colony. Overall, the game pushes you to explore and discover, if only to simply discover the fascinating (albeit, possibly deadly) consequences that follow each action.
Clockwork Empires also has a multiplayer that allows for four players to establish colonies in the same realm. In this context, the game still holds to its sandbox roots, allowing players to combine colonies, form allegiances, or even turn on each other.
Use of opium and alcohol, villagers named Squeers, fish people, badgers, steampunk—what more could you want in a game the parades itself around the idea of 19th century British Imperialism? Stay tuned, as Clockwork Empires is marked for release in late spring of 2014.
Katy Goodman is a freelance writer and graduate student. When she isn’t busy training birds of prey, horses, or freshman composition students, she can be found hiking or playing video games. Probably video games. She also really likes grilled cheese sandwiches. Follow her on Twitter @InvizzyB or on her blog, Pixel Hearts.