Here’s a cheery story, and stop me if you’ve heard it before: A man walks into a woman’s house, confesses his obsessive love for her, and strangles her to death. The eponymous Clock of Atonement lets the man–who feels Very Bad about what he’s done–rewind time and fuck around with the objects in the woman’s apartment and hopefully fix it.
As a disturbing set piece, Clock gets it right–helped in no small part by some pretty snazzy graphics. Everything is bright primary colors and cheerfulness and bright read clown blood. It’s not garish, it’s not one of those horrid neon-pink-and-yellow combinations that you see in some of the more lurid indie games out there–it just isn’t the color scheme that matches these themes, to great effect. This is juxtaposed against the kind of violence that takes place more in the head than on the screen; still, a certain jerky and frenetically quick stabbing sequence sticks in my head.
The game’s structure is, more or less, choose-your-0wn adventure brought into a top-down tile world. Time stops at a number of predetermined points, at which you can rewind, poke around the apartment, or turn time forward. The whole thing ends up taking the form of several time blocks, each of which has a couple of actions you can do. The goal, for the most part, appears to be distracting or blocking the killer as he chases the woman, and so you end up doing things like turning the TV on or throwing a chair in his way. The entire thing takes place in the one room; I’ve bought RPGMaker only recently and have only just begun to poke around with it, but already I can tell that there’s a LOT of very interesting and complex stuff going on under the hood.
If there is a flaw in the work it’s the flaw common to all science fiction-style stories with lurid plots–that is, any potential for a moral is kind of lost because of the intensity of that particular situation. Much of the protagonist’s atonement comes from his gathering realization that Murdering The Woman Who You Are Stalking Is Wrong and that Her Life Would Have Been Better If He Had Died Before He Killed Her–to which I say, well, yeah, no shit. The story ends up being about its own mechanics–which in itself isn’t a bad thing, of course.
There is, no doubt, some sort of message about player complicity at work here, the usual Killing is Harmless bullshit about The Only Way To Win Is Not To Play Because Playing This Game Means You Like Killing, You Sick Fuck. This is a theme which I have always had massive problems with. Give me a little while to tease it out, but I’m beginning to see resonances and contradictions between You Sick Fuck, Games Are Art, and Death of the Author.
We are very much in Clock of Atonement developer “daigo”‘s hands; we are on the rails that he (?) has set up. We are seeing the different possibilities that he has seen in his own premise. Know that I am not faulting him for his premise or making any kind of inferences about his views towards women or his psychological issues or anything like that. There’s that notion popularized by Stephen King of terror, horror, and the gross-out. While Clock doesn’t really hit terror–the game’s halted pace and bright colors make that difficult–it’s got its share of horror and the gross out. It just has little to teach us.
And I suppose it might come from that same impulse that I’m so repulsed by You Sick Fuck–because it sidesteps authorial intent completely and foists blame on the audience. I’m just giving the people what they want to see, a You Sick Fuck game says. They’re the ones who want these murder simulators–I wash my hands of my guilt. Spec Ops: The Line is a politician blaming a soldier for the very concept of war. Clock of Atonement doesn’t go quite that far–and, frankly, it’s a much better game. Those facts may or may not go together.