You might not think you know Dan Marshall, but odds are good you’ve seen or played his games. The co-founder of BAFTA award-winning indie developer Size Five Games has overseen the creation of everything from sex-ed comedy shoot-’em-ups to 2D stealth/thievery, all the way to LucasArts adventure homages.
With Size Five’s latest title Lair of the Clockwork God, the team has combined classic adventure gaming and platforming into a blend wholly their own. With its recent port to PlayStation 4, I sat down with Dan to talk about Size Five’s history and how they found themselves plunging into the Lair of the Clockwork God.
Elijah Beahm: What inspired Lair of the Clockwork God and what drew the dynamic duo of Dan and Ben out of retirement?
Dan Marshall: Ben and I have actually been talking about this game for ten years, since Time Gentlemen, Please! came out. We’ve been throwing ideas around while out in pubs the entire time. [Lair of the Clockwork God] is the third ‘version’ of the game, so it’s been ongoing behind the scenes pretty much continuously. Other versions were pure point-and-click, for example.
I think the real inspiration came when we realised it should go platformer, at least partially. We had this problem where we were telling the same adventure game jokes, and shifting perspective really allowed us to make some platformer jokes instead. Once we nailed that, it all flowed pretty easily.
EB: You and your team at Size Five have experimented with a variety of genre hybrids over the years. Were there any lessons that helped shape Clockwork?
DM: Yeah, I don’t really know that I’ve got it in me to keep making games in the same genre. I have a penchant for side-on 2D, but beyond that I’m keen to go anywhere. It’s more born from my own process — making the same thing over and over might be sensible from a business and ‘learning’ perspective, but if I’m going to get up and sit at my desk all day, every day? I need to be doing something fresh and different. Going over old ground kind of bores me?
I think the main lesson I learned from The Swindle is that people hate insta-death if the controls aren’t ‘tight’. The Swindle deliberately had this kind of Sonic-y physicsy control which a lot of people hated. So when it came to doing Clockwork God, I was very mindful of keeping the controls ultra responsive, getting feedback every step of the way.
EB: Size Five is also well known for your comedy chops. How do you find humor, no matter the setting?
DM: Hah, I don’t know. I guess it’s in the games we make. Like, my next game is shaping up to be a thing where you play a dinosaur in a steampunk gameshow, and I guess just immediately there’s scope for funny content there, so the seed is there, and I know what’ll happen is that Ben and I will have a couple of drinks and write some scripts and the comedy will lift the whole project. It’s one of those things that once it’s in, a good script makes you think “you know what maybe everything’s going to be okay…”
EB: Where much of the industry has opted for 3D games, Size Five has always kept a focus on journeying across the second dimension. What is it about the 2D landscape that intrigues you so?
DM: It’s where I grew up; it’s where my affinity is. It’s also WAY cheaper, which is very helpful. The thing is, I’m still very ‘old school’ indie — if that’s a thing? Size Five is mainly just me, in my attic, typing. I’m one of the longest-surviving indie devs and that’s because my overheads are very low: I design, I code, I do art, I do sound effects, all of it. I spend very little money day-to-day working within my remit, within the boundaries that keep me afloat. 3D would require me to learn a load of new skills, so it makes sense financially to keep it 2D. But, mainly, I’m a [Sega] MegaDrive kid, you know? I love it.
So yeah, I would love to do something in 3D if the budget suddenly allowed for it, but I’m happiest working in 2D for now.
EB: How would you measure out the balance of adventuring to platforming in Clockwork?
DM: It’s a point-and-click game with aspirations of platforming. We were pretty clear that the puzzles and plot come first, and the platforming (other than where it ties into the puzzles) was left ’till last. We treat Dan’s solo sections as a little ‘palate cleanser’ in between big hearty puzzles and make sure they never outstay their welcome, because the bread and butter of this game really is the adventuring.
EB: How many puns does the game contain, at a guess?
DM: I’d like to say not many, because I’m not reeeeally a fan of puns. I’d also like to say there’s only one ‘fart’ joke, because I don’t find farts funny either. But you know, I bet there’s an absolute load of both in there and I just haven’t realised. I mean, there’s a LOT of content in there, there’s responses for everything, on an average playthrough I bet you barely see a third of what we wrote… so I suspect a few more puns slipped in than I can remember.
EB: As of this latest sequel Dan and Ben are now Size Five’s longest running series, but I wonder, are there any other games you’d like to revive with a sequel or spin-off?
DM: I would love to do The Swindle again. I made a start, actually, but wasn’t quite ready to take it on mentally — I was pretty burned out after Lair of the Clockwork God and just needed to make something a little more… immediate?
The trouble with procedurally generated burglary simulations is there’s a lot of systems that need implementing — hacking interfaces, AI, and all this stuff — and there’s no ‘game’ until they’re done. So it’s on the back burner, for now. That game is great but rubs a lot of people up the wrong way, you know? So I’d love to take another swing at it but I’d be a bit more mindful about how harsh the game is.
EB: What, in your opinion, is key to porting a PC game to consoles?
DM: I have no idea, haha — I let Ant Workshop do all the porting. HOWEVER, one thing I have learned is that if you want the game to run nicely on a Switch you kind of need to design it in a way that allows you to shut off sections of the game easily. Our big ‘hub’ level was a bit of a nightmare to get going because I’d designed it on an old PC where it ran fine, but the Switch kiiiinda struggled with it. So a big lesson learned going forward was to shutter off the game in segments. Other than that, I’m sure my crappy coding was smooooooth sailing to port. *wink*
For more of Dan and Size Five Games, you can follow Dan on Twitter and check out their studio blog. Lair of the Clockwork God and their library of titles can be found on Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.
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