As one of the few remaining gadgets that don’t require electricity to function, I find a real comfort in clocks. They’re a combination of interlocking gears, wound by an actual person and set to keep ticking for a long time. Although I’ll admit that my transistor-packed Apple Watch definitely keeps me alive now, I’ve found an increasing fondness for hand-made gadgets and contraptions that rely solely on physics and mechanics to function.
It’s this fondness for clocks that The Last Clockwinder aims to impart, although of course the game relies deeply on electricity. Playable only in virtual reality, The Last Clockwinder is one of the first full narrative experiences I’ve had through the platform, and I was repeatedly amazed by the experience of inhabiting the small but compact space the game takes place inside.
You play as Jules (voiced by Caitlyn Elizabeth), who explores the small environment of a clock tower on top of a giant tree. I found all performances, which include Ray Chase as Levi and Cissy Jones as Edea, to be adequate, although the writing tended to be a bit too long-winded and some emotions felt forced. Nonetheless, getting to inhabit a character so fully is a feeling I haven’t really ever experienced, and it led to a disorienting but ultimately calming dissociation from my real surroundings as I let The Last Clockwinder fully envelop me.
Easily the most fun part of the game is getting to record your movements for around four seconds, then watching a recording of each tiny movement carry out the task on loop. There were multiple moments when I would fill a room of copies of myself, observing the slight movement patterns and reactions I displayed being turned into 3D GIFs in order to complete an objective. “Good job everyone,” I would sometimes instinctively yell at my clones, before laughing at the absurdity of me self-congratulating while I actually stand alone in my parents’ music room.
Although you will spend most of the game in one room, you’ll unlock new levels by finding keys that you then insert into a main hub’s control deck, like a very simplified airplane cockpit. Once you pull the lever, the current stage will fall out of existence while the new one rises up to replace it. There are then requirements you need to fulfill in order to progress to that stage, usually meaning that you collect a certain number of fruits or other plants. Early on, it’s as simple as creating a few copies of yourself to pick fruit off a planted tree and toss it into the pot that collects them. Later you’ll need an army of copies to complete different tasks such as placing the fruit onto a spike and combining it with other fruits, cutting off said spikes with a knife, or my favorite, tossing the fruit into the pot like it’s a basketball.
Although I never found the story to be particularly affecting, I always appreciated the break from the puzzles and sometimes role-played by lying down on the hammock or moving my hands with different gestures while my character spoke. I loved having the ability to clip my head through each environment and only sometimes breaking everything in the process. There were multiple moments where I felt an overwhelming sense of peace, completely disappearing from the real world and soaking in the carefully crafted sights and sounds flooding my senses. At times, it felt like a form of light therapy.
When it was time to go back to work, however, there were some snags. There’s a moment in most puzzle games where it goes from offering mind-numbingly simple puzzles for preschoolers to feeling like I’m back in geometry class, and The Last Clockwinder certainly had moments where I would look at a problem and throw up my virtual hands up in confusion. I would usually understand what they were wanting from me after consulting the game’s hint system and the occasional online guide, but there are still some optional puzzles that hurt my brain just thinking about them.
Of course, the sense of satisfaction you get when completing a puzzle is unrivaled. Composer Joel Corelitz’s score adds more complexity to the music as you get closer to solving it, similar to the way Portal 2’s music works.
I don’t know if this is how all VR games play because, again, I haven’t played many, but I can’t help but be amazed at what The Last Clockwinder was able to accomplish with such a relatively small budget. I’m not grading on a curve when I say that this game gave me a sense of peace and healthy distraction I have especially needed over the past few weeks, as a reaction to medication has induced mild psychosis, intense insomnia and multiple emotional breakdowns. Over this time, The Last Clockwinder has acted as a soothing escape from reality that no traditional, TV-bound videogame has accomplished in the same way. I’m not saying that the game cured my depression or opened my chakras, but it was a dearly needed break from a reality I have found increasingly difficult to stomach.
As I’ve written before, I’m on the autism spectrum, which for me means that I can be overly sensitive to lights and sounds that neurotypical people tend to be able to tolerate. A lot of games like DOOM and Call of Duty fall into this camp, overloading my senses to the point where my eyes start to water and my ears recoil in fear. The Last Clockwinder is an excellent example of the opposite of that, offering a gentle, kind tour through a broken-down clock in a giant tree.
The Last Clockwinder was developed by Pontoco and published by Cyan Ventures. Our review is based on the Meta Quest 2 version. It is also available for PC (on SteamVR or Oculus Store), Meta Quest 1 (Link Mode only) and Oculus Rift S.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and Looper. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.