The Watchmaker: The Final Hour

The ending to The Watchmaker is a bit like the ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark: the heroes completely fail to stop the bad guys, and just wind up sort of being present while the bad guys destroy themselves. Except here it’s more like two factions of bad guys destroying each other. We’re given reason to believe that the watchmaker himself was a good man, and created his cabal of immortals with noble intent, but he’s been out of the picture for some time, ever since his followers rebelled against him. It’s all quite biblical, really.

There’s still a little bit of a mystery left: Krenn, who founded the Knights of the Apocalypse, mentions in his diary a suspicious he has that his discovery of the watchmaker’s writings was more than just fortuitous, that they had been deliberately left where he would find them. Who, then, did this? I’m guessing one of the other immortals. Not the watchmaker himself, because he’d been dead for decades at that point, but someone loyal to him and unseen in the game. But that’s fodder for sequels that will never be made.

So anyway, the whole ending sequence is full of enemies who mean you harm. This is a pretty major shift. I think there are one or two opportunities to get a “Game Over” in earlier sections, but this is the first place where it’s easy. There’s a few stealth/action sequences, even. And I can’t say I like it. Action sequences in adventure games are just a bad idea, and forcing the player to replay from a recent save adds nothing good to the experience. (And I say this having implemented quite a few such sequences myself!) “But”, you may object, “without action sequences that potentially result in Game Over, how do you convey a sense of physical danger?” My advice is: Don’t use adventure games to tell stories that rely on a sense of physical danger. Use action games for that.

One peculiar thing about the endgame: When Darrel descends into the (rather small) labyrinth that leads to the pendulum chamber, he gives all his inventory to Victoria. This kind of makes sense from a gameplay perspective, as a way of simplifying things, getting rid of the cruft you’ve accumulated over hours of play and making you start over fresh in a new environment. But it really makes no sense at all in the story: “I may not be able to get back out, so I’d better get rid of any tools that might be useful down there.” And even considered as a gameplay thing, it’s followed by Darrel getting captured and Victoria going in to rescue him, with all the inventory Darrel gave her.

The very last puzzle of note in the game is one where I needed the walkthrough — not even for the conceptually-obscure part of the puzzle, which was within the realm of things I had been trying, but to find out that “candle” was a separate clickable from “candlestick”. A fitting end for a game of lousy puzzles. And yet, I have to admit that in these last few sessions, I was really enjoying it, and looking forward to it between sessions. Perhaps enjoyment of interaction is a lower bar than we give it credit for, much like how food doesn’t have to be high cuisine to be filling. Certainly the game became a lot more enjoyable the moment I learned how to control it properly. Also, by the end I was really inhabiting the castle, feeling it as a place. Its layout is irregular, with its curving tower walls, and entire floors you can only reach indirectly, making it confusing enough that even the player characters comment on it. This makes it all the more gratifying when it becomes familiar enough that you can navigate it easily. It’s been suggested that the real fun in games comes from mastering complex systems, and the geography here may qualify.

One last tangential note: There is a game on Steam called The Watchmaker, which I actually picked up in the recently-passed summer sale, but it’s completely unrelated. It’s a 3D platformer set in a world of enormous gears. It does, however, have some notions in common with the game I just played. Both games have a notion of clockwork mechanisms not just measuring time but controlling it, and of halting or reversing the aging process — in the platformer, you’re aging at an unnaturally rapid rate, and have to continually find resources to rejuvenate yourself to avoid aging to death. It’s fun to imagine that the games are in fact linked, that the platformer is the purgatory experienced by the watchmaker from the adventure game after his death or something. That his responsibility to repair the mechanisms that compose his world is his punishment for interfering with the natural flow of time back in the mundane world.

The Watchmaker: Nearing the End

I’ve reached the endgame. Darrel descends into the labyrinth underneath the castle where the pendulum device is stored, while Victoria keeps watch outside. I mentioned before that the game really regards Darrel as the hero, but this is the first part where it really forces the issue. There have been other tasks that only one character or the other could perform, but not entire areas that only one character could enter.

I said before that the single-character tasks seemed to be gender-linked more than profession-linked — Darrel’s superior upper-body strength, Victoria’s ability to get the shy maid talking — but didn’t continue to be the case. Victoria can read Latin and make convincing legal threats. Darrel can talk to people about the occult. (For the most part, he doesn’t actually say anything about the occult that Victoria couldn’t, but the mere fact that he’s available keeps Victoria from trying.) There was one bit where the difference in capabilities struck me as nonsensical, and caused me to get stuck: I was clearly supposed to sprinkle some blood on a rose to fake an omen that the superstitious Jude had been reading about, but only Darrel could do this. I knew exactly what to do, but had no idea why Victoria was refusing to do it. I had to hit the walkthrough to resolve that one, and also consult the manual to find out how to transfer items between characters, something I had previously done only inadvertently. It turns out you can shuttle items between them even when they’re in different rooms, as if by radio. A welcome if unrealistic convenience.

So yes, the walkthrough continues to be an important part of playing this game, and I don’t recommend playing without one. I was, however, pleased to find that in my latest flurry of activity, I was able to solve unaided several puzzles of the sort that I probably would have called unfair if I hadn’t been able to solve them. It’s as if I have enough data by now to be able to guess what the author is thinking, at least some of the time.

One thing that the walkthrough really makes me notice is the way that time substitutes for score. Time only advances in response to player actions, and the amount it advances varies from action to action, so the walkthrough notes this with both the amount and a running total, like “(5:45, +15 mins)”, exactly as if the minutes were points. I guess it’s appropriate for a game so clock-themed, but it also runs a little counter to expectation. This is a game with a deadline. The world ends at midnight unless you succeed in your mission, supposedly. I’m still suspicious about this, mind — now that I’ve had a second look at the backstory, the Knights of the Apocalypse really seem to think that their little ritual will just end the reign of the immortals, not the world. Regardless, time advancing means time running out. It should be experienced as a bad thing. But it’s instead experienced as a good thing because it means you’re making progress, kind of like how the player came to look forward to the destruction of the crystals you were supposed to be protecting in Final Fantasy V and similar.

The Watchmaker: “Telephone”

Okay, my replay is just about caught up to where I left off. Since I don’t have any new discoveries to discuss, I’d like to address something that imposes itself on my attention in every session: the UI.

In the main game view, you can do the following: Walk around by clicking or pressing the arrow keys (not WASD); switch to first-person view by pressing space; wave the cursor around to find things that pop up a name, indicating that they’re interactable; left-click on those things to examine them; right-click on them to perform another action, which is often just another examine; or press the tab key to bring up the rest of the UI, which mainly consists of a list of inventory items, but also includes a button to summon the other player character to your current location if you can currently do that. Note that summoning the other character doesn’t switch control to them. To do that, you have to use the “Telephone” in your inventory, which is clearly a PDA rather than a telephone. When I summon Darrel, it’s nearly always because I want to do something as Darrel, so it’s something of a UI fail that it doesn’t make that the default.

Note that you cannot play the game entirely from mouse, or entirely from keyboard. Both are necessary, which makes the lack of WASD support irksome, as it means your right hand has to repeatedly switch places.

Partly because I failed to discover first-person view, it took me a long time to get any inventory items beyond the “telephone”, and I thought there might not even be any physical inventory, like in The Blackwell Legacy. This turned out to be false. Inventory shows up in a nice tall list, where you can left-click items to bring up a rotatable 3D image, or right-click to select them for using on environmental objects or other inventory items. All fairly standard, except I think it must have left-click and right-click swapped from what I expect, because I keep doing the wrong one.

The “telephone”, though, is special. When you left-click on its 3D image, you get a close-up of its in-game UI, which consists of two items, displayed as graphical images, with equal prominence: the tone sequencer and the log. The tone sequencer is, as far as I can tell, used in exactly one puzzle, where you have to recover a number from a recording of telephone button presses — and even then, you don’t actually access it through this interface. The log is a lot more useful than that. It’s where the player characters record important information, so it’s a good way to find out what the author considers to be important. I really should consult the log more often, now that I know this. There are hints there that I’ve only noticed after hitting the walkthrough to solve their puzzles.

When you click on an inventory item to view it, the resulting UI also contains the button for switching control between Victoria and Darrel, and, even weirder, all the system-level functionality. This is where the save/load menu lives, and also the settings menu, and the option to quit the game — all the things you’d normally expect to access by pressing the esc key, which, in this game, does nothing. Now, I’ve known other games to mix their system menu and inventory menu together in various ways. But it feels very strange to me to have to make the system menu contingent on the inventory in this exact way. At first, I thought it was a property of the “telephone” item specifically, because that would at least have a connection to the way that some games dress up their system menus as in-game PDAs or HUDs or whatever. That would still be weird, but it would at least be a somewhat familiar weird. It was only after first writing this post that I realized that this was not the case, and I’ve rewritten things somewhat as a result.

The Watchmaker: Starting Over

So, there was this crystal. There are crystals like it in some of the more secret parts of the castle, attached to the walls and glowing. This one wasn’t glowing and it was in my inventory, but it was clearly the same sort. And then at some point it wasn’t in my inventory any more. Possibly this happened when I tried using it on the mouth of a lion statue, a thing that clearly had to have some sort of item put into it, because it was a separate useable from the rest of the statue. And I think the crystal was probably the right thing, because it produced an animation rather than a generic failure line 1UPDATE: Now that I’ve got to the point of having the crystal again, I tried putting it in the lion’s mouth, but it just produced a generic failure line. So I think I was mistaken about this. Still, this was the last thing I remember trying with the crystal., but it didn’t open up the obvious secret passage, possibly because the crystal wasn’t glowing. I probably need to energize it with a ley line or something. But I can’t do that if it’s gone. So I’ve started the game over.

Starting over from scratch when it was such a slog to get this far isn’t ideal, but it could be worse. At least it’s an adventure game. That means I can recover my progress relatively quickly. Most of my time so far has been spent wandering around not knowing what to do, and now I know what to do for about half the game. Plus, this is an opportunity to re-examine the earlier parts of the game with greater understanding.

It’s always a difficult thing, at the beginning of a game, to know what kind of approach it requires, and which details you need to keep track of. A game like this one poses the additional burden of tonal inconsistency. The castle has contrived adventure-game puzzles, including old artworks containing clues to operating machinery that opens secret passages. There is nothing realistic about that. And yet, to follow the plot, and to some extent to solve the puzzles, I have to take the castle somewhat seriously, and treat it as having a comprehensible history.

I’m keeping a closer eye on that history, this time around. To correct my last post: Anna lived and died more than two hundred years after the pendulum device was built, so her death is not linked to its completion. Also, I’m starting to suspect that the elderly caretaker, who’s spent his whole life in the castle and has been around longer than anyone, is one of the twenty-four immortals, left behind to guard the device.

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1. UPDATE: Now that I’ve got to the point of having the crystal again, I tried putting it in the lion’s mouth, but it just produced a generic failure line. So I think I was mistaken about this. Still, this was the last thing I remember trying with the crystal.

The Watchmaker: The Past

As The Watchmaker progresses, it becomes less about the public face of the castle, with its cast of characters, and more about its secret, abandoned, and forbidden spaces: the old wing, the sealed clock tower, the tunnels under the cistern. The hidden chambers and compartments accessible within these places, opened by puzzle-mechanisms. This is a much easier place for an adventure game to reside, and more the sort of thing I was expecting when I purchased a game titled “The Watchmaker”.

As a result, it’s also becoming more about the past, and about time, and about clocks. I’m learning more about the history of the device I’m looking for. Its creator, the watchmaker of the title, didn’t build it for the purpose of ending the world. Rather, it’s somehow capable of stopping time for people at a cellular level, rendering them immortal. A select group of twenty-four people had their souls bound to this clock a century or two back, and cannot die until its pendulum is made to start swinging again. Apparently they’re more or less ruling the world in secret now. I’m starting to consider the possibility that I’ve been lied to, that the Knights of the Apocalypse aren’t trying to end the world, but rather, to end the reign of this illuminati. But then, I have to remind myself that this isn’t Metal Gear.

Now, that mausoleum with the chessboard in it was built for a girl named Anna, who died in her teens. It’s been clear for some time that Anna was going to become relevant to the backstory. I was anticipating some sort of tale of grief-driven madness: “The world has taken away my beloved daughter, and so I will build a device to destroy the world!” But that doesn’t jibe with what I’ve learned. I’ve found a note written by Anna’s father, who complained that she was spending far too much time around the watchmaker. And yet, the watchmaker’s own diary doesn’t mention her at all. Where is this story going? Perhaps constructing the device required a human sacrifice.

The Watchmaker: Stolen Organs

This is the kind of game that people are thinking of when they complain about adventure game puzzles. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on its logic and chosen conventions, and can proceed without further need for the walkthrough, it throws me for a loop, read-the-author’s-mind-wise. My latest encounter with this tendency isn’t even related to puzzles!

It turns out that the laboratory I mentioned before had more in it than just the syringe. Indeed, there was a metal box that was specifically described as “an obvious hiding place” when I clicked on it. But there didn’t seem to be any way to open it, so I moved on. Turns out that I needed to zoom into first-person mode, which you’d think that I’d have learned to try by now. Inside, I found a bag of blood (an inventory item, which I haven’t yet found a use for), and a container with a human heart inside. The player character was horrified at the discovery, but I didn’t fully understand why until I went to talk to an NPC to see if I had spawned any new conversation topics. I had: “Stolen organs”. And I’m like, what the heck? What about this situation was supposed to suggest that the heart I found was stolen? Remember, this entire castle is owned by a major pharmaceutical company. They have legitimate reasons to do medical research, and the resources to obtain donated organs legitimately. But I was expected to treat a specimen from a cadaver like a major scandal.

What’s more, when I confronted the supervisor about it, the player character made another big unjustified leap. Now, I had learned some time back that the supervisor had been seen unloading a crate from a van in the middle of the night, and he denied it when I asked. Clearly he was up to something. But when I asked him about “Stolen organs”, the first thing I said was “I found the crate you were seen unloading from the van…” There’s probably a translation issue here: the box I found in the lab was not something I would describe as a “crate”. More like a refrigerator, really, given its contents. But even putting that aside, we seem to have started from “This is a box” and leapt to “It must be that specific box“, even though there are boxes of various kinds all over the castle.

A slightly related point: This game has names for its rooms, which it displays along with the time of day when you enter a new location just after time advances, like “Upstairs Hallway, 1:30 PM” or whatever. I don’t remember if I’ve ever seen a name for the lab, but the walkthrough calls it “Secret Laboratory”, so I’m guessing that this is what the game calls it as well. And it’s inaccurate. There’s nothing secret about it. The door is clearly visible, just locked with a keycode, which seems like a very sensible security precaution for a medical laboratory.

Maybe my mindset is just wrong for this game. Maybe I should be thinking more in terms of where the story wants to go instead of in terms of what’s reasonable. Perhaps I should just be thinking the worst of everyone. But even this presumes I can recognize what kind of story it’s trying to be, and that might not be the case. In my last session, I found evidence that, in the world of this story, the moon landings were faked and fluoridation is a CIA mind control scheme. This is totally not where I was expecting things to go, even with all the ley lines and doomsday cults.

The Watchmaker: Voice Acting

So, I’ve been talking to the characters a lot. It seems like the designers imagined this as Step 1, because I keep getting hints for puzzles I’ve already solved, often by resorting to hints. The fact that I’d rather look up hints than talk to all the characters says something about the game. The voice acting is a big part of it, but really, not all of it is that bad. Here’s a list of the characters, ranked from best voice acting to worst.

Victoria Conroy, player character and ostensible lawyer: Not too bad, really. The worst I can say about her is that her delivery is a bit flat, especially when discussing ridiculous things like ley lines.

Greta Snyder, the caretaker: Stern and disapproving, this is basically a one-note performance. But she hits that one note competently and consistently, and in a way that’s consistent with the lines she’s been given.

Stephen Klausman, the cook: His characterization consists mainly of a thick accent, but in a way that I’d call fairly typical for point-and-click adventure games. At least his line readings are decent, and he expresses emotion at appropriate moments, if not all that convincingly. Of special note: One of his voice lines, in a sequence where you distract him so you can steal his keys, appears to be still in the original Italian. From what little I heard, I suspect the Italian voice actor is a lot better than the English one.

Christopher Anderson, the supervisor: Has some weird readings. I feel like his lines were written for a very specific characterization, a little posh and condescending, and the actor just didn’t understand that at all and went for Mr. Friendly instead.

Raul Hernandez, the gardener: Like the cook, his characterization consists mostly of an accent, except this time the accent is Indian rather than German, which is kind of strange for a character named “Raul Hernandez”.

Darrel Boone, player character and ostensible paranormal investigator: Really doesn’t know where to place the emphasis. Reminds me a lot of the English voice acting in cheesy Japanese zombie games.

Carla Hoffman, the maid: Quite stilted, especially when she tries to express emotion. Sometimes she recites her words with an unnaturally rhythmic cadence, like a Dalek.

Henry Eistermeier, the caretaker: The voice actor seems to have decided that the way to play an elderly man is to have is voice crack up and down all the time like he’s yodeling. His lines written to be very casual and frequently contain colloquialisms that the voice actor clearly has never heard said aloud, resulting in some very awkward readings.

Jude Roberts, the supervisor’s wife: Distractingly bad. Just the worst. I am unconvinced that this actor understands English at all. Her delivery reminds me a little of Christopher Walken: the same sort of odd cadence, words grouped in ways that don’t make sense.

The Watchmaker: Afternoon Thoughts

I’m posting about this game more than it really deserves because I can’t bring myself to binge it. Each session is fairly short, but still requires a post, by the terms of the Oath. Still, I’ve made it past noon! (The game says the time is 12:15 AM, but it’s a little confused.) My latest time-advancing accomplishment was tricking the supervisor into leaving his office so I could ransack it. This gave me the combination to a locked room, a small laboratory full of microscopes and centrifuges and things. The upshot: I now have a syringe. What do I want with a syringe? I don’t know. Presumably it’ll come in useful later, but this isn’t really what I was hoping for when I searched the man’s office. There’s a whole lot of Caesar’s ladder going on in this game. Also, I’m starting to think it may be going by a general rule that each room holds exactly one inventory item. If I’m right, that’ll be a big help going forward, letting me know when I need to keep searching and when I can stop — although there’s danger that I’ll trust the rule too much and stop prematurely.

Getting rid of the supervisor involved a small act of vandalism. It’s really making me think about how antisocial the player’s actions are in this game generally. Oh, you get to do a couple of good deeds, finding lost items for people to gain their trust or whatever. But most of what I’ve done in this game involves wrecking stuff, breaking and entering, and making people’s jobs harder. Just imagine how embarrassing it’ll all be if it turns out that my employer’s information is wrong and the doomsday device is hidden somewhere else.

The other thing I’m discovering is that yes, you really do have to ask every character about every topic. It usually doesn’t lead to anything useful or interesting, but sometimes there’s a vital clue, and there’s no way to tell which combinations are the magic ones. At least the game does us the courtesy of greying out the options you’ve already covered. I don’t always see things greyed out that I know I’ve asked about before, but I’m willing to believe that this is a result of me quitting without saving.

The Watchmaker: Overview

Let’s take a little break from griping to describe the game more fully. The most striking thing that I haven’t mentioned is that you have control of two characters, which you can switch between freely, like in Maniac Mansion or Thimbleweed Park. It even improves on those games slightly: there’s a feature that lets either character summon the other to their location. It isn’t always enabled, though. The manual says that the button to do it appears only when the characters are in different rooms, but it seems to be considering logical rooms that contain multiple rooms in the conventional sense.

The two player characters are Darrel Boone, an expert in the paranormal, and Victoria Conroy, a lawyer sent to accompany him. They’re interchangeable for most purposes, but there are occasional interactions that require one character or the other. From what I’ve seen, these moments are more linked to the characters’ genders than their professions. Since each character keeps a separate inventory, it makes sense to use one of them as the primary character you use for exploration. The game generally seems to regard Darrel as the story’s hero — the intro cutscene makes him the viewpoint character, and the manual gives him a longer bio than Victoria — but I’ve been using Victoria as my primary, because I’m in the habit of choosing female characters in games when given the choice, and because she has better voice acting.

The castle you’re searching was bought some years ago by a major pharmaceutical company, referred to by characters only by “the multinational”, which modernized portions of it and made it into a remote headquarters. The only people currently in residence are the supervisor, his wife, and assorted castle staff: maid, cook, gardener, housekeeper, and caretaker. All conversation with these people consists of picking items out of a topic inventory. Topics include each of the residents, the multinational, and various other things you discover over the course of the game, but significantly don’t include any mention of the doomsday device you’re looking for or the religious fanatics suspected of stealing it. Presumably you’re being circumspect because of the likelihood that some of them are involved. But it does mean that your investigation has to be a little indirect, tricking people into giving you what you need and circumventing their reasonable desire to keep you out of the more dangerous, unrestored sections of the castle. Heck, you’re starting from a place of dishonesty, passing yourself off has regular guests of the multinational.

At the beginning, you’re told that you have until midnight to complete your mission — that’s when they ley line energy will be at its peak, or something. The clock starts at 9:00 AM, and advances only in response to your actions. I assume that this means we’ll only be able to finish the game right at the stroke of midnight. Right now, after five sessions, I’m only up to 10:15 AM. But even that small progress represents acceleration; I spent the first three sessions stuck at 9:20.

The Watchmaker: Keyboard Controls

It looks like a lot of my problems with this game have been a result of not reading the manual. There are ways of interacting with it that I didn’t know about, because I was thinking of it as a point-and-click adventure, and generally trying to do stuff with the mouse. I did figure out on my own that you needed to use the tab key to bring up the interface containing the in-game PDA and the save/load menu, and I managed to hit on the idea of pressing shift when clicking to run instead of walking (a virtual necessity, given the size of some of the rooms). But I apparently never tried pressing the space bar, which shifts the camera into first-person mode. You can’t move in first-person mode — it’s more meant for getting a close-up view of small areas with multiple small clickable objects, and in some cases there are objects you can’t even see without zooming in like this. (The chessboard, which I still haven’t solved, puts you into first-person mode automatically when you select it, but it’s the only thing I’ve found that does that.)

Also, in addition to clicking the ground to move, you can navigate with the arrow keys, which act as tank controls, like Grim Fandango or Alone in the Dark. This isn’t necessarily an improvement over click-to-move in games, of course, but the environments in this game really aren’t designed for click-to-move, and the fact that I was trying to use click-to-move anyway detracted from the experience in little ways that made me less patient with it than I could have been. See, this is one of those third-person games where the camera shifts between fixed (but rotatable) positions based on where the player character is. Using click-to-move, there are hallways where you have to pan the camera down until it’s nearly vertical just to walk to the point where the camera points the other way, and there are places where it’s hard to move at all because the use box for a hedge or something extends over the ground you’d need to click on. I had been thinking that these scenes were simply badly built, but it turns out I was using them wrong.

I can’t even really say that these features lack discoverability. They’re on the space bar and the arrow keys, for goodness sakes. How it is that I tried tab before trying these, I don’t know.

So, playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played, I’m finding it’s a significantly better game than I thought. But I still don’t think it’s a good game. If anything, discovering first-person mode makes the lack-of-guidance problems worse, because of the possibility that there could be a useful object hiding where I have to zoom in to see it. I’m not yet at the point of just playing entirely from a walkthrough, but I’m definitely playing with a walkthrough open.

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