I’d forgotten games could be this funny.
You know tennis? When one of the players does something faintly amusing, like, if someone did it in the office you’d lift your head and offer a small smile? And how the crowd goes apoplectic with crazed delight, roaring with laughter and applauding as if they’d just witnessed Richard Pryor’s surprise comeback? That’s comedy and videogames. It’s so sparse, so half-hearted, that just a bit funny is enough to have us in upright delight, heralded as a masterpiece of wit. So to play a game that’s actually hilarious – properly funny from start to finish – is positively dizzying.
Lair Of The Clockwork God is amusing from the opening moment to its closing nonsense. It’s rude, clever, silly, sweary, lovely, deeply childish, and just made me laugh and laugh and laugh.
But what is it? Well, most importantly, it’s a third Dan & Ben game, but it’s completely fine if that doesn’t mean anything. Back in 2008 and 2009, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward made two of the best point and click adventures ever, and you didn’t notice. Ben There, Dan That, and Time Gentlemen Please, were lo-fi, extraordinarily funny tributes to the ’90s adventure, gloriously daft and rude, and most importantly, excellent adventures in their own right. For a decade since, the two have teased and started and abandoned many a sequel, until now it has finally arrived, and gosh I’m so glad it has.
However, this is no dated point-n-click adventure like your great-granddad might have played. This is HALF a fated point-n-click adventure like your great-granddad might have played, and half a platform game that you kids like so much. At the same time.
It’s such a fantastic conceit, and it’s frankly extraordinary that it works. In Lair, Ben sticks to his roots, refusing to budge, and encounters the game as an old-school inventory-led adventure game. But Dan, determined to move on, is playing it as a tough-as-nails (but (mostly) not really) platform game. You switch between the two, usually in the same scene working together, playing two completely contrary genres simultaneously.
The success is founded in this being an excellent adventure game, and a pretty decent platform game too. I have some issues here and there, and they’re all within the platform side of things, but I want to make clear before I start picking at them that overall, most importantly, it all works, this idiotic concept impossibly coming together.
It begins as tastelessly as it possibly could. Ben and Dan are exploring the jungles of Peru, looking for a flower that cures cancer. Why? Because Ben reckons it’ll force people into respecting their new game. Games about cancer automatically get a pass, right? No matter how bad they are.
And right away I want to celebrate this. Good lord, games are so sodding pious. Jokes about awful things are GOOD THINGS. I gasped when it began so unpalatably. I emailed Dan Marshall to tell him he was a terrible person, and that I love him. (I don’t think Dan’s liked me since RPS gave his foot-to-ball game a terrible review, so that balances out in terms of professional integrity.) And good grief, dreadful games get ridiculous and terrible reviews if they’re about personal tragedy, especially the C-word. Thank goodness someone said so.
Turns out it’s all moot, mind, since the pair arrive back in London to find it’s the Apocalypses. Yes, all of them, at once. The world is ending in every imaginable way, and the pair accidentally flee to a vast secret and ancient underground network of bunkers, where an artificial intelligence asks them for their help. It needs to learn all about human emotions, and something something this will make the world better? Ask Ben, he’s into the exposition. Dan just wants to run and jump right past it.
Everything that follows could just be an excuse to read more of the conversations between the two, because every single moment of the thousands of lines of dialogue here is amazing. I took screenshots every time a line stood out to me. I took 183 screenshots. And yet, wonderfully, the stuff you’re doing as they chat is really top-notch too.
Ben’s adventuring features some really excellent puzzles, some of them so damned good that to hint at them would be to spoil some of the best moments in the game. I haven’t been so delighted by a puzzle since the early days of the Nintendo DS. So many are so gloriously distasteful, snapping limbs from corpses, covering items in – er – gentlemen’s spare fluid, and a not inconsiderable amount of weeing.
Dan’s platforming is better than it needed to be for this whole idea to work, but certainly the game’s weaker area. For the most part it’s fine, and as he gains new Metroidy abilities like double-jumps, it’s good fun to leap and sprint about, trying to make it through challenging deadly obstacle courses. (And what happens each time a platformer dies? You’ll finally find out.) It does, unfortunately, occasionally get a little too tricky.
This is peculiarly underlined in one particular section of the game. There’s a gag in there where Dan is made to play through what is supposed to be an especially difficult sequence of platforming, and he gets increasingly annoyed by it each time he dies. Except, well, I didn’t find that bit too hard, and started dying on purpose to see his reactions. However, the two platforming sections before and after this scene had me swearing at the screen, and at one point hurting my hand rather a lot when I slammed it on the desk in annoyance.
To give that important perspective, I find Hollow Knight little to no fun because I think its platforming is far, far too tricky and picky. I think Ori & The Blind Forest is as perfect as platforming gets. Please adjust your reception of my opinions accordingly. I managed to do absolutely all of Lair’s platforming, but it was a bit frustrating that it tried to make a joke of being too hard, in between being a bit too hard.
Oh, while I’m mentioning issues, there’s a weird glitch when Dan lands near Ben’s head, but the devs say they’re working on that right now and hope to have it patched out soon. It’s not a real problem at all, but looks a bit strange.
But goodness me, any issues are so immediately forgiven and forgotten because of the dialogue. There’s no recorded speech here, and I think that’s a good thing – these jokes work so well in text, and I can’t see how voice actors could deliver them better. Instead they make very Steamworld Dig noises, which do the job perfectly.
There’s a degree of effort gone into the writing that you don’t see anywhere any more. Combine almost any inventory item with anything interactive, and you’ll get a bespoke funny response, in what must be hundreds of possible combinations. I’d almost forgotten the early ’90s joy of deliberately using wrong items before the right one, just to hoover up all the jokes, and what a joy to remember it again.
Gosh it’s so nice to play a game that’s so rude, without ever being cruel. There are jokes about wanking, jokes about death, jokes about sexy virgin monkeys. There are even jokes about walking simulators.
And all of it is done so nicely! It seems so strange to say it, but this is a game that appears to have love at its core. Heck, Dan and Ben tell each other they love each other an awful lot! And goodness gracious, it feels so heartfelt – since they’re simulacrums of the devs, maybe it even is.
It’s also a game about not being young any more, and as a person who very probably isn’t young any more, that really hit home. I’m a 42 year old who constantly worries my 5 year old will soon outgrow my sense of humour. This is a game that might as well have been solely made for me, a splendid mix of eternal childishness and the ennui of adulthood. I laughed so, so much, even applauded the screen like a great big idiot. And I felt the astoundingly well-earned pathos.
This is joyful and smart and stupid and hilarious. Yes, my hand still hurts from getting so cross with one platforming bit, but it’s as nothing compared to how funny it is. I so desperately want to give examples, reveal some of the game’s most elaborate gags to prove to you how impressive this is, but I shall resist. You trust me? Trust me on this one.
Lair Of The Clockwork God is incredibly funny, impressively big, meticulously detailed, and so very smart about how dumb it’s being.