There’s something very alluring about alternate-reality-games. They allow designers to craft intricate, baffling puzzles based around scientific minutiae and intense math that would be impossible to solve in a conventional game, and the community will crowd-source a solution. For the most part, ARGs are used for advertising purposes (Halo’s I Love Bees campaign is the most notable example), but in recent years that sort of insane puzzle design has begun to creep its way into our regular entertainment. Fez is infamous for puzzles that took the entire internet months to solve, and GTA V’s post-game alien mystery still has players stumped (though it might be an elaborate joke).
Cloud Chamber is the first game, to my knowledge, that uses more standard ARG elements (such as corrupted videos and text/image files) as the basis for its entire play experience. The game presents a series of videos and documents with comment sections attached, all strung together as nodes in a strange virtual landscape. These landscapes are split up into 10 different chapters, each with its own visual and narrative theme. The clips and files make up a documentary about the Petersen institute, a Danish laboratory engaged in top-secret experiments involving a mysterious signal from the ether. More specifically, they tell the story of documentarian Thomas, sound geek Max, and young science prodigy Kathleen as they work together to research the signal.
What is the signal? What is it doing to Kathleen Petersen, and what did it do to her mother Ingrid? Where did Kathleen go, and how did she get there? Working with other players, you have to sort out the chronological order of the jumbled fragments and uncover their meaning. There’s no gameplay involved, per se – no puzzles you need to solve or questions you need to answer to advance – the game is entirely focused on discussion. As you uncover data points, you can leave comments speculating on their meaning. If other players agree with you they’ll like your contribution, and chime in with their own opinions. Once you reach a certain threshold of likes in a chapter, you’ll gain access to special locked nodes that hide further secrets.
It’s interesting to see this sort of content gamified. “Found footage” mysteries like this have cropped up on youtube (BlackBoxTV used similar techniques in its first “season”), but not with this level of interactivity. The way content is gated is also interesting, although flawed. Using the content sorting system of sites like Reddit is a fascinating idea – and in practice it does encourage focused speculation – however, it means that other users need to notice your contributions if you want to see all of the game’s content. Even if you make good contributions, other players might just not take notice. If the developers don’t add some other way of earning access to locked nodes (which contain vital info), then players who join after the initial post-release rush may find it impossible to advance past the base story content. Worse, we might see players try to cheese the system by creating mass upvote threads, which would completely defeat the purpose of the like system in the first place.
In these early stages though, what’s in place works well. The game’s community is for the most part thoughtful and respectful, and its players are fairly active. Cloud Chamber presents a fun exercise in speculation and deduction, and a few dedicated individuals are hooked. The question is, how long can the game hold their interest? Frankly, I don’t think it has very long legs. If the mystery isn’t solved relatively quickly, many players will get bored and find something else to do. If it is… well, that’s more or less the end of the game anyway.
For however long it stays alive, though, this story is pretty fascinating. Spotty writing is a bit of an issue, but the typos and grammatical errors make the documents feel more authentic, and you can forgive Danish natives for using some odd phrasing. The acting is decent, cable-TV-grade stuff, and while the long monologues and adolescent depictions of relationships won’t draw you in emotionally, it’s believable enough to suit the purposes of the game. The real meat of the narrative is in its science fiction conceits, which are heavily rooted in real scientific principles. Aside from the drama at the institute, a lot of the video content is made up of snippets from a documentary on the European Space Administration. Cloud Chamber will teach you a lot of interesting facts about space, magnetic fields, and sound – all mixed in with a bit of wild speculation, of course.
Sound plays a huge role in Cloud Chamber, and not just in the story. As you explore the virtual landscapes, you’ll listen to a constant hum of ambient space noise and weird electronica. The music does a great job of setting a mysterious, otherworldly mood, and I suspect that between the lyrics and noise, the various tracks contain some vital clues to the nature of the signal. In turn, the 3D environments pulse to the beat, making them seem almost like visualizations of the music. Zipping between the nodes feels very surreal.
For a game of this kind the interface is paramount, and thankfully Cloud Chamber gets it mostly right. The maps are a little chaotic and confusing, but if you don’t want to look around for nodes in 3D you can always switch to a top-down perspective and find them that way. A drop down menu allows you to view activity on threads you’ve posted in, and instantly travel to the relevant node from anywhere in the game. It’s easy to find where you’re going and get there. Problems only crop up when you arrive. For some reason, typing in the comments is quite laggy, and it can be a bit of a headache to navigate to specific threads. There are also some common sense shortcuts that need to be implemented – for instance, hitting escape in a video should simply exit full screen, rather than bringing up the game’s pause menu. These are minor issues, though, and it’s easy enough to carry on a conversation with other players.
A tale full of intrigue and mystery, Cloud Chamber is built on interesting ideas in terms of both its mechanics and narrative. Due to the nature of the game, the community could fall apart once it’s solved, although the chance that it might end is exciting too — it means we’ll have closure on a great story, which is all too rare in MMOs. Right now, as it stands, Cloud Chamber is an impressively grand experiment that’s well worth your time and money. If this seems up your alley, don’t wait — get into it while the getting is good.