First Look: Cloud Chamber

By John Walker on March 25th, 2014 at 3:00 pm.

I think my struggle to calculate an opening line for Cloud Chamber is rather indicative of quite what a peculiar, interesting and original thing it is. But that seemed to work. A multiplayer game in which “playing” is discussing, where there are no puzzles but you’re always puzzled, where mysteries are crowd-solved, but spoilers are impossible. I’ve got a lot of explaining to do.

Cloud Chamber builds on a lot of ideas with which we’re familiar, although is dissimilar to all of them. There’s the notion of the Alternative Reality Game, where obtuse mysteries are solved collaboratively, where forum discussion is as important as scraping through JPEG source code for ROT-9 text. CC takes the former, not the latter. There’s the trend for found footage movies, where stories are pieced together from supposedly recovered camcorder-filmed material, and CC incorporates this. And there’s Reddit. Oh boy is there Reddit. Cloud Chamber embraces a great deal of the methodology behind it. Put all this in a bucket, swirl, add copious astrophysics, and split into four or five seasons of game content.

Forty years ago, a woman called Ingrid Petersen discovered a signal. Contained in the smallest sub-atomic particles floating in space, there was information. But the facility for which she worked, the Petersen Institute, covered this up. Later, Ingrid herself was murdered. Jump to the present day and a group of 20-somethings, with Ingrid’s daughter – Kathleen – amongst their number, have caught wind of this cover-up. They’ve been investigating the signal, Ingrid’s death, and the nature of the whitewash, and it’s their footage which is at the core of the game you play. Footage created for the game by the team behind the Danish hit The Killing, and starring Game Of Thrones’ Gethin Anthony, and Bond baddie Jesper Christensen.

Play is really about conversation. While the game content is presented in a really rather swishy-looking 3D landscape (“crowdscape” is their word, but, no), the vast majority of what anyone playing will be doing is chatting. This is a social game, where progress is linked to how usefully you contribute to the community. While the creators know the answers to the many mysteries the game will present, they’ve all been written in such a way that alternatives, other potential solutions, are possible to argue for. And argue they hope we will when the game goes live.

Using a Reddit-styled voting system, people’s contributions to discussions will be up- and down-votable, allowing what will likely become a lot of noise to see the useful contributions rise to the surface. (There’s also to be time decay, so the older contributions will disappear.) And if your commenting karma goes up, you’ll find you have more access to information about the game, letting you get further better informed. About 20% of the game’s content will be limited in such a way. And there’s to be a lot of information. Alongside 90 minutes of filmed footage, broken up into a few minutes chunks, there’s also to be a hundred or so documents, maps, transcripts and other materials, and a further 90 minutes of real-world documentary footage from the European Space Agency, all providing information, evidence and presumably also misdirection regarding the first season’s mystery of who killed Ingrid Petersen, and the game’s overall arc as to what is this mysterious signal, and from where has it come?

This will, apparently, embrace much of the latest theories in astrophysics and astrogeography, albeit in a script for the first season written before the successes of CERN with the Higgs Boson. Players will be encouraged to spend a good deal of their time outside of the game’s world, researching real-world topics to further understand what they’re seeing and discovering. Which just sounds delicious to me. Memories of playing the long dead The Stone come to mind, finding myself poring over encyclopaedias (yes, this was pre Wikipedia, kids) and Googling like crazy to learn about various subjects in order to untangle mysteries. Cloud Chamber plans to be a lot less overt than something like The Stone, and indeed the many ARGs that followed, eschewing traditional puzzles. These are, they say, reality-breaking. They have a strong desire for Cloud Chamber to exist within the real world.

The next reference I have for such a game is Lexis Numerique’s In Memoriam. Its attempt to blur reality with its own fiction was almost excellent, but again, CC isn’t looking to replicate this either. There are to be no faked websites scattered amongst the internet, and I’m assured, it won’t feature tile puzzles. This really is about the information contained within the landscape software players receive, and the real world. There’s no attempt to obfuscate, no mystery emails arriving in your inbox from clearly faked characters, and the developers hope that all of this will lead to a far more believable experience.

They’re also hoping to deliver “an emotional experience of the geography of space,” and that is certainly a pitch I’ve not previously heard. With a clear passion for science, and a desire to deliver a mystery that will question the fabric of reality (literally), there’s a lot of potential here. Even for gaming misanthropes like me, who will struggle with the desire to contribute usefully. I’m assured that the game will be possible to experience as a consumer, as someone just reading the efforts of others. Although just putting it that way makes me want to pull my socks up and join in with such a thing properly.

And rather splendidly, despite the novelty of the game’s model, there’s to be no bullshit with the business model. Cloud Chamber, coming to Steam this July, will be something you pay for, and then have. Crazy, eh? The game already completed a beta test in Denmark, and was, they say, received very well. With the new footage, and the relationship with the European Space Agency for top-notch accuracy in the science, I’m certainly intrigued. It’s also a very tough one to call on before direct experience. Working with communities, forming opinions, arguing details, and researching topics – that stuff sounds intriguing. How it will hold together, and deliver a satisfying experience, I can’t yet figure out. This first season of four or five will focus on the death of Ingrid Petersen, but leave large mysteries about the signal itself, and ideally hook us all in to want to learn a lot more about what’s going on. We shall see this Summer.

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19 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Bugamn says:

    Funny how a game about discussion has no comments here.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      I don’t think a combination of Facebook and 90’s FMV is really the average RPS reader’s idea of heaven, though I speak for myself of course. And am in no way average **holds hands parallel and very far apart with wry grin**

  2. internisus says:

    Unless I misunderstand, it seems like the longer one waits to purchase and regularly play this game the more of the content one misses out on, that content being of course the process of participating in the community’s mystery solving. So you either buy it immediately and play it often or you feel more and more like you’ve missed out and other people have played it for you, discouraging you from getting involved later.

    Other than that anxiety, it sounds like an experience I’d very much find interesting.

    • Premium User Badge

      P7uen says:

      I love the idea of ARGs, and I like Extrasolar which sort of is a bit but not. This social type one’s not one for me though, for reasons of shyness and those that you mention.

      If you go on holiday might it be all over when you come back? Those ARG marketing things tend to get finished within 8 seconds of being announced so I suppose they must be very sure of their systems/puzzles or artificially time limit them.

  3. Enkinan says:

    This sound interesting if nothing else.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Gap Gen says:

    Incidentally a real cloud chamber is a terrifying reminder that high-energy particles are tearing through your body every second.

  5. Tei says:

    A game of this type that you can play just now and is rather good:

    https://extrasolar.com

    • Premium User Badge

      P7uen says:

      I ended up paying for their 1st tier of thing purely because I love this so much and want them to continue making more.

  6. RagingLion says:

    That sounds potentially really awesome and that it at least has the possibility to explode and be a really big deal. I’ll be interested to see the noise out of this once it releases.

  7. Geebs says:

    Knightmare meets Pattern Recognition?

  8. BobbleHat says:

    Sounds like a game that was released 10-15 years ago, which was short-lived and got shut down, I think. Name of it escapes me but it was an online puzzle-type game that involved…hacking? I think. It also involved co-operation from other people, possibly via webcams.

    Ah yes, Wikipedia tells me it was called Majestic. I remember reading it in PC Gamer and thought it sounded amazing, the future of online gaming. Hah.

  9. Halk says:

    >there’s to be no bullshit with the business model.
    >Cloud Chamber, coming to Steam this July, will
    >be something you pay for, and then have.

    Erm… what?

    You do you realize that Steam is a DRM system?
    Nothing you “buy” there you ever really have.

    • Premium User Badge

      P7uen says:

      And we all die eventually, life is fleeting so anything we buy we never really have. What we should aim for is bringing happiness to others, positive change, and propagation of ideas that live on after we are gone.

      • Halk says:

        >What we should aim for is [...] propagation of ideas that live on after we are gone.

        In that case you should hate Steam, as it puts a “best before” date on the cultural products distributed through it. At some point in the future the Steam server will be shut down, and all the ideas will die. (Unless they were made immortal by people cracking the DRM.)

    • Philotic Symmetrist says:

      Except that the common perception that Steam=DRM is actually not quite true; Steam provides DRM but there’s nothing stopping developers from allowing the *.exe to run without being signed in to Steam.

      • Halk says:

        Not particularly useful when you don’t have an installer (that works without Steam) to re-install the program later/on another computer/in an emulator in some distant future/…, is it?

  10. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    Advancement being controlled by the community’s approval of your achievements reminds me a bit of what I’ve heard about A Tale in the Desert