Has anyone done this before? It seems so simple, so obviously pleasing and harmonious. But then I think about it and I can’t bring any other easy examples to mind. And besides, I can’t think of anyone who’s done it with so many jokes. “The thing you have to understand,” Dan Marshall tells me before I begin to play a short demo of the new standalone Ben and Dan game, Lair of the Clockwork God, “is that everything is a joke.”
Everything? The hook for Clockwork God, the has-anyone-done-this-before brilliance of it, is that while the first Ben and Dan games were adventure games, this one is partly an adventure game and partly a riff on indie platformers. Which indie platformers? All of them. And there on the start screen, instead of Press A to Begin: “Begin Experience.” Man, everything is a joke.
So this is the set-up. Ben loves adventure games: loves clicking on things, combining things in inventory and solving puzzles at his own pace. Dan thinks there’s no money in that anymore, so he wants to make an “indie darling” platformer. Jumping, running around and dodging stuff, learning vague lessons about life and God and all that, and if Ben absolutely has to combine things in his inventory, can’t he at least call it crafting?
The demo I’ve played shows that such a blend of ideas can work really beautifully. Ben and Dan are in the jungle. Spike pits and moving platforms and vines all over the place. Ben cannot jump, and he won’t drop down from ledges, so a lot of the fun in this first area comes from working out how Dan, who is far more agile, can open a path up for Ben and get him where he needs to be so that Ben can solve more traditional puzzles.
If this sounds escorty, things happen soon that really mix everything up. In fact, one of the real delights of this game promises to be how regularly things get muddled around. A crucial moment early on comes with Ben combining items in his inventory – crafting! – to make double-jump shoes for Dan to use to open out the environment a little. Minutes later a brilliant homage to Canabalt kicks off. Marshall admits that the problem with comedy games – particularly comedy games that poke fun at games – is that they often forget that the homages still have to work brilliantly as games. So if you’re going to riff on Canabalt, you have to be up to it. I think Clockwork God is up to it.
And even at the end of my demo, the thrill of the central idea is still so bright. Switching between characters, one of whom can run and jump, the other of whom can highlight interesting parts of the environment, pick up items, combine things. The last time I saw Marshall, he was showing off The Swindle, and I left the demo floating, a little bit, at the joy and humour and sheer potential of it all. I left Clockwork God floating too. I cannot wait to see more.