Let’s get this out of the way at the start – Cloud Chamber isn’t really a game. You know when people watch a video clip or a trailer and pick apart all the little nuances of the imagery? Or turn the volume up real loud listening for hidden clues in the vague crackle of a badly distorted audio file? Or trying to hit the pause button just when a flash-frame image pops up? And then discuss findings and theories in various forums and social media sites? No, me neither.
But they do exist, and would feel right at home playing this. I, on the other hand, was seriously out of my depth…
Cloud Chamber is an interactive investigation. Sort of. A story fragmented into video diaries, found footage clips, pictures and documents spread out through labyrinthine stages. Each stage has a track running through various nodes of interest, with hidden and locked-off nodes for the completionists that usually harbour some juicy tangential information – but more on those later. At each node, there will be a piece of evidence – sometimes a video, some pictures or documents, sometimes something even odder. And attached to each node is a little Facebook-esque social window that allows you to discuss and rate comments on the node’s contents with other players. That’s about it, frankly.
It’s a bold concept – there literally is no game here, only observing the evidence and trying to work out what is happening and where it fits into the story arc. The game-play is a mixture of interacting with others and using all the information to piece things together – and it’s quite satisfying if you are into that kind of thing. The story itself is told jumbled – things are out of chronological order, and some even contradict earlier or later nodes, and a whole lot of it is incomprehensible until certain blanks are filled in later on. The whole thing is centred around four people, witnessing something very interesting on a roof, and the consequences/back-story/reason for it all. That’s all I am going to say about that, I’m afraid, as just about everything I could say would be a spoiler. Or completely incoherent out of context. Weird is the byword here in Cloud Chamber, and let me add – it only gets weirder.
Cloud Chamber is not a game that minds taking the Dark Souls approach to storytelling. Nothing is spelled out too clearly, and almost everything you find is relevant somehow, provided you think and pay attention. My discussions with others during the game varied from observing the odd behaviour of security cameras all the way up to discussing the temporal possibilities of the behaviour of neutrinos. It keeps you guessing, and the best part is that you get to guess along with a bunch of other people as you go. Very rarely has a game managed to get me so engaged with others, particularly with people I don’t know. Even in a standard MMO I tend to go it alone for the most part – Cloud Chamber had me arguing with some random person over a facial expression (she was in pain, dammit).
This brings me to one of the game’s biggest issues – the multi-player aspect. There are normal nodes throughout each stage that are accessible in sequence, and there are locked nodes. These locked nodes can only be accessed when a player obtains the status of a “Contributor”, which basically means you have a comment (or comments) with the requisite number of likes in a stage. Now, I understand the point of this – it encourages players to get involved with the discussions and actually interact with others as opposed to just charging through the nodes and finishing without a clue. The issue here is that getting “likes” is a struggle, and each stage ramps up the number you need to access these hidden nodes. Over a few weeks I left almost constant messages and replies in key nodes – every mad idea or observation I had was documented in a desperate effort to gain the needed likes to unlock all those darkened nodes. In three weeks, I got four likes.
I needed six for Contributor status.
The next stage I spent a week on, trying to do the same thing. I needed 7 likes for this one, and at the time of writing, I have one. Oh, and four replies that agree with my points, yet clearly not enough to hit that little thumbs-up button. I’m sure I’m not missing anything important in those locked nodes, but it still grates that despite my best efforts, I am still unable to completely finish this game. In the end, I just powered through the remainder of the stages, as there seemed to be little else I could do.
The stages themselves are also a bit of a strange thing too. Each is a networked web of these data nodes, all criss-crossed with paths of light along which you trundle, and yet seem thematically uncoupled from the story. Each stage as a signature theme – islands in a dusky sea, under-water chasms, or even an asteroid field, but if these have significance to the story I clearly missed the reference. Each has its own audio signature too, occasionally jarring or serenely mood-lifting, the soundtrack is varied and often the most impressive presence while playing, although if I was honest – really not my kind of music. Still exceptional mood setting stuff though.
Cloud Chamber was a fun experience for me overall. A risky attempt at constructing something a little bit different. And it just about succeeds. Although a bit ropey at times, the acting is fine, and the plot interesting enough to keep you clicking onwards. There are even more chapters planned too. But the delivery of the story was, for me, a real challenge to organise mentally. It skips about, backwards and forwards that I spent quite a bit of time writing things down in a misguided attempt to work it all out. I am not the smartest of people, you see. But those clever people I mentioned at the start will absolutely love this. Digging and looking and reading and thinking, all the while chattering to others doing the same – it’s right up their street.
The lack of actual interactivity with what was happening (or what has already happened – you are watching recordings) was a worry too, but to be honest I enjoyed being a spectator for a change. There is something liberating knowing there was nothing to do but watch and read. No bosses to take down, no world to save. Just information and the mental exercise of trying to put it all together.
And frankly, that itself was one hell of a challenge.
The Verdict – On Target
Platform Reviewed – PC
Platforms Available – PC
Review copy supplied by PR. Please read this post for more on our scoring system