Nicolau Chaud brought a little oddity to my attention while we were discussing ideas for new game mechanics. Yes people, it's another experimental RPG Maker outing.
HERE BE NON-SPOILERS
Clock of Atonement is a short thing, probably requiring no more than twenty minutes of your time. Here's the elevator pitch: you killed a girl you loved then get to play about with time trying to change what happened.
Boiling it down, the game is little more than exploring a decision tree, but it's an interesting decision tree. Just like Loved is not much more than a bog standard platformer, but has a little extra that charges the experience with meaning.
And despite the brightly-coloured screenshots and pixellated characters, you might find the ride uncomfortable.
Spoilers are below. Don't read on if you intend to play.
HERE BE SPOILER DRAGONS
The original synopsis says you are a psycho which for some reason I didn't quite believe until I saw the protagonist kill or rape the object of his affections again and again and again... which, all things considered, makes this a queasy experience. Seeing your avatar die or get arrested turns out to be a welcome release.
As a game it's a short choose-your-own-adventure book. Your options for intervention are clearly indicated at each point but how they will edit the future is often unclear. It's not a case of unexpected consequences, it's more of "Why would I want to open the bathroom door?" It's lacking, but sufficient for the experience. The shortage of real interactivity is, to some extent, a plus. You don't have real control here. The clock does.
There's tension whenever you move the clock forward, wondering if you've bought your love a bit more time, or whether you're about to witness her death again. And each death is unique, ensuring you don't become desensitized to a stock death scene.
In emotional tone, it's closer to Edmund than Beautiful Escape, but more cathartic. Your goal is to prevent violence - not to perpetrate it. Yet the twist is that the clock is not given to you to save the girl, but to teach you to hate yourself. The clue is in the title. It's not the Clock of Undoing Blindingly Stupid Mistakes. It's the Clock of Atonement. It makes you Alex in A Clockwork Orange, forced to witness violence and depravity to serve a greater good.
This is a parable that says a journey of suffering is necessary for atonement. Those scenarios in which you lose your life or freedom do not automatically end the game, which is telling: the clock does not care about saving the girl. You are condemned to watch more and more; it is only after you are moved to intervene directly does the clock consider its job is done.
The game has one serious failing. There is a disconnect between your character pre-murder and post-murder. In the past, he's love-insane psychostalker. But the character that has come through the murder, the one holding the Clock of Atonement, is rational for the most part and already understands the burden of what he has done. It undermines the game's structure; the character doesn't seem to learn over the course of the game, because he's already where he needs to be right at the start.
In the end, the ambiguous closing scene refuses to confirm if anything has changed. The girl may still be lying dead on the floor beside the television set, her body waiting to be found. It's a chilling possibility that reminds me of a short film called Reckoning, which has a nasty twist in its end: you travel from A to B, only to discover that B is actually A in disguise.
Post-game buzz: A bleak affair, but gripping.