Monday, February 8, 2021

Happy, As A Clam!


When I anounced my intention to steer this blog away from its unwritten mission statement - "all mmorpgs, all the time" - I never meant to replace the online with the offline, the massively multiple with the single-player or the rpg with point-and-click. Nor did I imagine I'd find myself running a showcase for every micro-game, demo and introductory prologue available for free on Steam

That's what seems to have happened, though. Oh, well. 

It doesn't help that Steam is one of those annoying 21st century cliches, the dumb AI. It sits there humming to itself, noticing everything but understanding nothing. The more of these fragments I download, the more it suggests. It doesn't seem to pay attention to whether I spend any time playing them or whether I uninstall them as fast as I can. Steam believes in love at first sight. If you clicked, you must have clicked.

Of course, I'm not helping myself. Or Steam. The AI keeps asking me what I think of things and I keep refusing to answer. If it'd only give me a "None of your damn business" button I'd click that all the time.

Hey! You know what this is? It's a bit for my stand-up routine. Or it could be. I could have used it in the Steam freebie I played today, a game called Clam Man 2: Open Mic, "a stand-up comedy RPG adventure" or, if you will, "...a combatless, narrative RPG". Not a promising premise, perhaps, but let's find out. Maybe it won't be toe-curlingly embarassing after all.

I saw it on the list of free games Steam's AI likes to show me now it's realized how cheap I am. Mostly I mouseover and move on but the curious title was enough to get me to click through. 

On the store page I noted the "Very Positive" rating so I scrolled down to check out the reviews. I was already halfway minded to give the thing a try anyway. After all, as the shill said, "Give the game a shot! It's free! You've got nothing to lose!". 

What swung the decision was the way the reviews kept comparing Clam Man 2 to Disco Elysium

"I liked Disco Elysium for a lot of reasons and I think this game took inspiration from it."

"Oh, how I wish that more games would be inspired by Disco Elysium! Clam Man 2 does a splendid job of using that type of RPG gameplay formula."

"It's like Disco Elysium meets Kingdom of Loathing."

"Glad to see games in the style of Disco Elysium."

"It reminds me of a light hearted, fishy Disco Elysium."

"Bikini Elysium basically."

Wait, what? Bikini Elysium?

There are over two hundred and fifty reviews and it seems like half of them make the same comparison. And honestly, having played it, I'm surprised it's not more. It may not look much like Disco Elysium but it sure as heck plays like it.

Which is odd. Because Disco Elysium is bleak, alienating and disturbing while Clam Man 2 is warm, funny and relatable. 

Which is odder still. Because Clam Man really is a clam, man, and all the characters are fish. Or shellfish. Or arthropods. And the whole game takes place underwater

That's why one of your four stats is Aquamobility. The other three are Improv, Self-Awareness and Detection. Having played Disco Elysium I knew what was up with the stats as soon as the combined tutorial and character creation section got going but I'm pleased to say Clam Man 2 does a much better job of introducing and explaining its core concepts and mechanics than Disco does. It doesn't just leave you to flounder. (Don't forget to tip your waitress. I'll be here all week).

One very significant way in which CM2 differs from DE is that those four starting stats are all you get. There aren't any secondary stats introduced during gameplay and you don't have gear slots to kit yourself out with clothes and accessories that boost your skills. 

At least, not in this free Prologue, you don't. I'd hope that might change in the full version of the game because being able to tweak your build by wearing different insane costume combos or learning abstruse and surreal life-lessons was a big part of what made Disco Elysium such fun to play.

To counter that absence, Clam Man 2 (I have to keep adding the numeral for clarity. Apparently there really is a Clam Man 1. Or just Clam Man, I guess) comes with a visual trick that I found almost ridiculously effective and affecting. A red D20.

That's an actual 3D model of a die in a purely two-dimensional game. Two-and-half. Whatever. When there's a significant roll the big red die clunks down and bounces across the screen in an entirely convincing fashion. 

The suspense as it teeters on edge before toppling one way or the other is excruciating. I've always loved dice rolls in RPGs. I enjoyed the way Disco Elysium displayed them but this takes it to a whole 'nother level.

The underlying premise of what I'm guessing we're now calling Disco games is an open acknowledgment, a celebration even, of their rpg heritage. Instead of burying the randomization in the deep background they bring it into the spotlight. Clam Man 2 goes that step further and makes it the star of the show.

Oh, wait, no. That's you! You're the star of the show. Or you will be if you can just come up with three jokes ("Bits. We call them bits") that work. The plot takes you from your mundane job behind a desk at Snacky Bay Prime Mayonnaise ("What is it you do there?") to fame and fortune on stage. 

Yeah, not really. More like open mic night at the comedy club that just opened in the basement of your office building. The one no-one even knows is there yet. So before you even get to perform, how's about going out and doing some unpaid promo? And while you're at it, see if you can come up with some material. It's not like you know any jokes, now, is it?

That's the plot. It's also the gameplay. Except, just like in Disco Elysium, one thing tends to lead to another to the point where it's hard to remember what the point even was. 

My favorite part was running letters between a five-year old child and her estranged father. I found him hiding in a mailbox. Got a good bit out of that one. Then there was the Awkwardness Scale. Some recognition laughs there. The food war in my fridge was spectacular but I ended up not using it. I can try it out next time. I'm going to need new material.

The demo, prologue, free chapter, call it what you will, took me about two hours to finish. It has a start, a middle and an end. It works as a short standalone but in it you can also see the shape of the game to come.

Even though I finished what I set out to do there seemed to be a lot of loose ends left untied. You only need three jokes to get up on stage. I had four and I could have had several more. I still had unfinished quests left over (yes, they do call them quests) and most quests seem to reward ideas for jokes. I'm guessing there were several side-stories I didn't get to see so there's some replayability.

I'd want to see them, too. The writing is good. I wouldn't call it great but then I think I'm picky. I wouldn't call Disco Elysium's writing "great" either. Another thing the two games share is a predeliction for academic theorizing. I like it but I can see how it wouldn't be to everyone's taste.

The only time I thought the writing fell down was with the on-stage routine routines themselves. My bits went over with the audience but they sure wouldn't have made me laugh. I appreciate comedy is a matter of taste, something the game goes out of its way to emphasize, but I couldn't see why anyone would find some of Clam Man's observational asides amusing. At times, I thought he sounded more like a sociology professor than a stand-up comedian.

The visuals are strong. Maybe too strong. It took me quite a while to warm to them. I did in the end but I have to say that anthropomorphized crustaceans are always going to be something of a hard shell. I mean sell. 

While the world and the characters look nothing whatsoever like anything in Disco Elysium, the UI, specifically the communication interface, is incredibly reminiscent. It's hard to say just why text works but this really does. It's a positive joy to read and interact with.

As for the music, what there is of it is good, but someone really needs to write more. Two hours listening to what amounts to a pastiche of a few bars of the guitar figure from Pale Blue Eyes is a little much, even for a Velvets nut like me.

Minor quibbles aside, Clam Man 2: Open Mic is good. Possibly very good although I'd reserve judgment on just how stressful it might be. I did find some of the dice rolls nerve-wracking and the final on-stage performance, which the full game will have you repeating night after night with an entirely new routine each time, could end up being nightmare fuel.

If you can hack the pressure, I'd strongly recommend anyone who played and enjoyed Disco Elysium to check it out and it would be ideal for anyone who considered trying DE but wasn't sure they wanted to pay the entrance fee. Also anyone who likes fish and jokes, although not jokes about fish, of which there are mercifully few.

If you want those, you're going to have to go some plaice else. 

Yeah, that doesn't work. 

Edna? Wanna come workshop it with me?


  1. By the way, if you haven't tried The Kingdom of Loathing you probably should. It's… unique. You may hate it, but it's free last I checked and quick to try out.

    1. I have a vague idea I did try KoL years ago but I can't remember anything about it. I might have to take another look.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide