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First Look: Cloud Chamber

Particle Trail

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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John Walker


Once one of the original co-founders of Rock Paper Shotgun, we killed John out of jealousy. He now runs buried-treasure.org