To cut right to the point, the questions I’ve been asking myself surround the role violence plays in the tone of Clockwork Empires.To start: I don’t believe that violence for its own sake is interesting or desirable because, well, it’s unpleasant. Unpleasantness, however, definitely has a use in the aesthetic and narrative experiences that games explore (- to say that games are just about “fun” misses so much of what is going on in them!)
So let’s dive in.
The Clockwork Empires frontier is not a peaceful, gentle place and it’s important that we express to players that there are terrible, terrible consequences for Knowing What Should Not Be Known, Digging Too Greedily And Too Deep, or simple things like “not planning a stable food supply” or basic colonial defense. Things happen.
Clockwork Empires is riding a bit of a weird line aesthetically – it is both adorable and slightly horrifying. Or perhaps it is disarmingly cute, at first, but then people start starving, someone pulls out a butcher’s cleaver, and then cannibalism. It wouldn’t be cannibalism without awful people-steaks and blood spraying, would it?
The violence here is about following through on consequences and giving them a visceral (heh) shock to emphasize that, yes, this is horrible. And there’s something interesting in the contrast between taboo-violence and the happy little colonists that look like little painted dolls. (What, these cute little people really do these terrible things? Oh yes they do.)
The cute visual aesthetic lets us go to very dark places without really going to very dark places. This is a game, after all. It’s fun, right? Sure! (Well, honestly I want to make games for more than ‘having fun’, but that’s another blog post.)
I’m getting a little theoretical here so let’s get back to the particulars of art direction: this week I had Sean make a first run of “gibs”. My angle, probably due to playing way too much Quake back in the day, was to evoke the generic meat-chunks of that game. In a way Quake was super violent: you’d tear bodies apart with rocket launchers and nailguns, etc. But in a way it was cartoony, ridiculous, and silly because those bodies were only about 200 polygons and the gibs, what, the low double digits? And tiny textures too, with pixels you could count. These chunks of flesh were total abstractions, symbols of violence rather than realistic depictions of violence. It worked!
The pixels of Doom were arguably more realistic because they depicted particular violence to bodies, however crude: heads splitting open, chests bursting, and so on. I’d argue that Doom was a far more graphic game, doubtless referencing the aesthetic of horror movies that get into violence that’s about the spectacle of violence. And that’s not where I want to go with Clockwork Empires. So my instructions to Sean right from the JIRA ticket were this:
I lean toward not making it horrifyingly specific (as in, not eyeballs, identifiable organs, etc) and more like Quake meat chunks which would essentially be the 3d version of Dredmor’s generic blood/ichor/goo/ectoplasm
It’s become clear to me in writing this that my approach to how I want to depict violence in Clockwork Empires is absolutely informed by my personal experience with videogame violence. Dude, the 90’s were a weird time in games! I think it was Doom which first horrified me with the specificity of violence. Then I distinctly remember Soldier of Fortune for how it depicted human suffering alongside over-the-top violence. And it was actually pretty unpleasant, as I recall. More unpleasant than the simple unpleasantness I’d like to evoke in CE. Violence was used in these shooter games to emphasize player power fantasy, and in Soldier of Fortune it was actual suffering being used to emphasize player power fantasy. That’s getting creepy.
Maybe it has a place, but should not (in my opinion) be used for the sake of its own spectacle. Certainly in Clockwork Empires we want to explore some themes of suffering plus body horror/transformation along the lines of, ohhh, Victorian gothic horror and arists like Lynch, Cronenberg, and – well, I’d say Geiger is an influence, but you know, maybe with not quite so many phalluses. But we’re doing it not to emphasize how powerful the player is, how they are able to make other people hurt. No, quite the opposite: This is about how dangerous the world of Clockwork Empires is, or maybe how dangerous the people in it think it is in the face of their stubborn imperialism conflicting with things outside of their understanding.
This is about showing the player the consequences of their colonist’s conflicts with the world, each other, and with the will of the player. Players: protect your little people, because they can get hurt!
In other news, we have conjured the Wizard Whitman back from the Realm of Magical Law! He shall assist us in casting Spells of Greater Game Development and Evoking Mystic Energies from the Plane of Elemental Fun. Also, UI programming.