Cloud Chamber is a multiplayer narrative adventure, in which players discuss, theorise and contemplate. It's a cooperative game in which everyone is anonymous and the only goal is to understand. Original live action footage is spliced together with documentary videos from the European Space Agency to create a sci-fi story that is, at least in part, a changeable thing, created by the commentary and input of human observers.
It's FMV focus makes it seem like a portion of the past but it's approach to multiplayer gaming feels like a slice of the future. Here's wot I think.
If you'd been peering over my shoulder during any given evening last week you might have jumped to one of three conclusions before I commanded my canine butler to remove you from the property. It's possible that you would have thought I'd chosen to spend my free time watching a hokey sci-fi television series, in which young people poke at laboratory equipment and occasionally transcend/meet aliens/fall into an unknown dimension. Peer at the screen for a while longer and you'd see me clicking on scenes, reading documents and examining photographs. An FMV adventure game then? But what of my conversations with mysterious people on an unknown social network, in which we talk of UFOs, the intelligence of the universe and ghosts in the machine? Had I become precisely the sort of conspiracy theorist that ordinarily makes my skin crawl (crawling due to the nanomachines in my Cheerios, eh?) or was there a simpler explanation.
Well, yes. I've been playing Cloud Chamber, a game about theorising, communicating and watching young people poke at laboratory equipment.
Cloud Chamber is a narrative-driven game. At first, I thought the whole thing was about experiencing a story that was already written with no space left for player input - observing and piecing the parts together rather than collaborating. That's not the case though - Cloud Chamber is all about collaboration. Collaboration, communication, conspiracy and cooperation.
The story and its telling are central to the experience, so it's fair to assume that the quality of plotting, writing, presentation and performance would be the essential elements. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I was preparing a mildly scathing critique of everything from casting to set dressing and prop design, the frustrated film critic that lurks within flexing rarely used muscles. As a fragmented feature film, Cloud Chamber is not a thing I would choose to watch. Everything, from script to casting, is fine but very rarely better than fine. If it were a pilot for a new show, chances are I'd have forgotten about it a couple of months before realising it hadn't been picked up for production.
None of the content is flawed in a way that prevents enjoyment of the game's core. My eureka moment came when somebody replied to the first message I'd written on Cloud Chamber's internal message boards. There's a board for each new part of the mystery, which might be a photograph, a document or a video. They're delivered via the kind of fictional computer system that makes Jurassic Park's hacking sequence seem like an utterly credible insight into the daily white hat grind. The files have been encrypted in a program and now they're scattered across rendered landscapes, and the higher they appear in the landscape, the more important they are.
It's a load of cobblers and there isn't even a Sentinel-styled game of struggle, tension and ascension to muck about with. Instead, each data point is a node, with one or several paths leading from it to other nodes containing yet more globules of media. Navigation is simple, with a shiny view swooping through valleys and across islands between each entry, or a top-down map that makes finding stray nodes a cinch. It's a glitzy interface rather than a challenge and as I soared through the first map, which is very small, I wondered what my role was.
And then the conversation started. Cloud Chamber has been part of my life during a week in which social networks have become vehicles for drive-by assaults and it has been a pleasure to spend time debating and discussing fictional mysteries within a fictional framework, a place where people work together and are so polite that I forget I'm on the internet at all. The conversations that spring up around every piece of media in the game's database are the game - it's primary verbs are not 'run', 'dodge' or 'shoot', they are 'observe', 'speculate' and 'converse'. That's refreshing. Either the message boards are monitored very efficiently or the sort of people who would gladly ruin the experience aren't willing to spend the time or money it'd take to do so.
As it is, abusive comments can be flagged but I haven't found the need. Cloud Chamber is a multiplayer game in which everybody is working toward the same goal - understanding a fractured and intentionally obscure mystery - and the mode of interaction with other players is text. Conversations are civil and even the strangest theories, which aren't supported by text or video, can be left to sink into oblivion rather than being downvoted. The fading of older comments is also the machinery by which Cloud Chamber can remain unspoiled - the story (or at least a first 'season') is available as a whole and seeing it from beginning to end does not lead to a conclusion. The conclusion is only found in discussion.
That's where the game becomes interesting and sprang from being a forgettable thing to a weird little seed in my mind. The story doesn't provide answers, it provides clues which lead to possible plot points, which are mostly open to interpretation. This means that if somebody persuasively argues a point - such as my excellent ghost in the machine theory which has been illuminating monitors and minds across the world - it becomes part of the story's fabric. On any given hour, day, week or month, one viewpoint will rise to the top due to the in-built voting system and reading those theories and watching alongside colours the experience. The 'reality' of the story is vague and weird enough to support a diverse range of opinions and arguments, and there are red herrings and wild goose chases aplenty - but my red herring may be your great white, the centre and conclusion of the whole affair.
The eventual story is a collaboration between all of those who are playing at any given time, and the actors, writers and directors. There's a very early scene in which two figures can be seen in the background of a shot after a cut - they shouldn't be there and when I first started playing, there was a long conversation about the possible reason for their existence. Aliens? Government agents? Dimension hopping spectators? Ghosts?
Mundane little man that I am, I thought it was a production error. A couple of the crew having a cig in the background, not realising that the camera was running. But I threw my chips in with one of the prevailing theories and decided to slot all of the 'evidence' together. I wouldn't have done that if it hadn't been for the madly brilliant and intricate posts that people were constructing at that particular time in that particular place. The experience is like solving an ARG in a way and it'll be interesting to see what the prevailing decision as to what every detail means is, and whether that will change as posts erode over time and new players arrive with their own thoughts and opinions.
I hope there is more to come, although that'll depend on how well this first release performs financially. The story doesn't cry out for continuation because it already has that, as long as people continue to play. There are loose ends, sure, but that's kind of the point. Without loose ends to worry and obsess over, Cloud Chamber wouldn't need its players. It's the sort of sci-fi that becomes dafter in my eyes the more seriously it seems to take itself, but there are clever ideas in among the silliness and I managed to silence that inner film critic and enjoy the conversations.
It's a social game, in a very positive way, and a creative collaboration between strangers. Despite its flaws, I'm extremely glad that such a thing exists and that I overcame my initial sneery cynicism. If I had a slider to turn that particular internal setting down in my brain's menu system, I'd probably be able to enjoy films that don't fill me with anxiety and existential dread as well.
Cloud Chamber is available now.