Earlier this week, we previewed Investigate North’s Cloud Chamber – a highly ambitious mystery game combining elements of conspiracy, hard Sci-Fi and murder mysteries, all wrapped up in an in-game social network and presented as a repository of found-footage, emails and documents stored in a 3D landscape. If you haven’t read that preview, you can do so here.
I had the benefit of being able to put some questions to Creative Director Christian Fonnesbech about the game, its inspiration and development – as well as Investigate North’s hopes for the future. Here’s the result.
What was the inspiration behind Cloud Chamber?
The gameplay in Cloud Chamber is based on what we all do, on the Internet, every day – because on the net, we are all detectives!
Your preview focused a lot on the risks of conversations with other people on the Internet. We’ve made 3 previous “discussion mysteries”, and this has never been a problem. Truly.
We will, of course, be actively moderating, and there is a “report abuse” function. But, but, but: this as a game design challenge – not a moderation challenge. The game is designed so that bad things sink and good things rise. This may not be perfect at launch, but it will get there. Also, Cloud Chamber is very much a collaboration – and as soon as you remove competition from the equation, things tend to become a lot less aggressive.
And then there is the community spirit. In our experience with these things, it really doesn’t take very long before this manifests itself. It works like this: the people who invest time and effort in investigating and playing the social game will protect themselves and their time investment. The mystery experience quickly becomes like a clubhouse for people who enjoy the same kind of investigation, story, subjects and mood – and nobody wants a bunch of punks defiling their clubhouse. So punks get reported. Simple. 😉
Then there’s the spoilers – and this is central to everything. Simply put, there are no spoilers. The whole game, all 150 media files, have been written without spoilers. It’s literally all about the discussions. The different files do add up, and there are definite answers to every dramatic question – but you’re never going to find a note saying “The butler did it”. The important pieces of the story are absolutely deducible, if you think about it and get involved in the discussions (or just read what people discuss) but the answers are missing. The emotional satisfaction lies in the conversations, not in the answers. And we know this is satisfying, because we love it ourselves. It’s not the answers that are satisfying, it’s the conversation about the answers.
So where did the inspiration for this “discussion is gameplay” come from?
It came out of the idea that the Internet Age needs its own storytelling format – earlier times had their novels and their movies, but where is the story form of the information age? How do you tell a story, when your main medium is not print or film, but networked computers?
I’ve been pretty obsessed with this idea for over 10 years, now – and me and my team have made 35+ attempts to figure out how to make a story format out of what the Internet age is all about. We tried all sorts of combinations and formats, and one day we discovered that the combination of mysterious film clips, certain gameplay mechanics and social networking seemed to work. Since then, we’ve made 3 other mysteries and Cloud Chamber is the fourth. The big design challenge, this time, was to make it persistent and lasting (and worth paying for!).
And then there is the story…
Cloud Chamber was very much inspired by my own growing up in a family of scientists. My father is a geneticist and my mother is a microbiologist. This is a very specific way to grow up – and it shaped me and the way I see the world in ways that I’m still trying to understand. So Cloud Chamber is very much about growing up with science, about seeing the world in a very specific way – and about realizing that there might be more to it than what your parents told you.
At the same time, I grew up in the tension between very atheist parents and very religious grandparents. When we started developing Cloud Chamber, I realized that this could be an opportunity for me to explore just what, exactly, is “out there”? And it worked (!): I’ve spent the last 3 years talking to astrophysicists and exploring the universe from the smallest particle to the limits of the Universe. That’s also the journey we’ve built into the player experience of Cloud Chamber.
How long has the game been in development for?
Tell me a bit about the studio and the background of the development team. Have you worked on similar projects in the past?
As mentioned, we’ve made three previous “mysteries” and 30+ other projects. The core team came out of Internet games, with great collaborators from film, tv and indie games. We worked closely with KnapNok Games from Copenhagen – very much an indie game developer.
The use of established actors, licensed music and all the video footage must have cost a pretty penny. How has the game been funded?
It wasn’t as expensive as you might think. The actors and film crew are all artists, just like the game team and the musicians: they were all interested in trying something new. If we’d paid full Hollywood and music prices, Cloud Chamber would not have been possible, since it was so new.
Roughly how much original video footage is there in the final release? Where was it all recorded?
There’s 80-90 minutes of filmed footage in there. In addition, there is several hours of documentary footage, as well as written emails, journals and so on. Core players spend 25-50 hours watching, reading and discussing, all told. All the fiction parts were shot in Copenhagen – at various scientific locations. We had a lot of great help from the European Space Agency and all sorts of institutions in Denmark.
It’s been stated that a lot of future content is planned. Will future seasons continue to follow Kathleen, or are you looking to move on to additional stories, mysteries and characters?
I expect new seasons to revolve around the same characters, although the stories will be new.
One of the risks of games like this is that players coming into the experience at a later date could find themselves confronted by a quiet community, as many will have digested all of the content and since moved on. How do you plan to combat that, and what sort of schedule are you working on to ensure a regular flow of content?
The game is designed to be playable even when there aren’t a lot of people online. The release schedule will very much depend on the financial success of the first season. If we can afford it, we would love to release mini-mysteries and other stuff between seasons. We’ve only just begun to explore the possibilities in this discussion-as-gameplay mechanic.
Cloud Chamber is certainly ambitious, and it also belongs to a genre that isn’t very well explored. Why do you think that ARG games haven’t previously managed to strike a chord with developers or found a wider audience, and how do you hope Cloud Chamber will change that?
We don’t think Cloud Chamber is an ARG at all! ARGs are about puzzles and websites – this is about knowledge and emotion. The only thing Cloud Chamber really shares with an ARG is that we (kind of) pretend that it is true – and to my mind that’s a role playing thing, not an ARG thing. Role playing games are all about pretending it is true. I think Cloud Chamber is more in the tradition of found stories, which goes way back – not just to The Blair Witch Project, but also to Orson Welles’ War of The Worlds radio show [Editor’s note – when The War of the Worlds was first broadcast, it actually incited mass panic due to people genuinely believing the Earth had been invaded by Martians], Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Danielewski’s House of Leaves and so on [Editor’s note (again) – If you haven’t heard of House of Leaves, we highly recommend seeking it out. It’s a fantastic book]. Cloud Chamber is more like that, with the added Internet/ Game age functionality of social networking and 3D navigation.
The big question, for me, is why found footage works so well here and on computers and the Internet? I think it is because the storyteller or game master or whatever, who actually asks his audience to take part in a story is really asking them to “pretend that it is true”. You could say the same about a movie, but it is not the same thing at all. As a player, you don’t just watch this, you have to interact with it and with others, while you watch – and still pretend that it is true.
That puts a much higher demand on the audience’s ability to “suspend disbelief”. Just think how distracting it is in a cinema, when somebody makes a lot of noise! In a movie, the audience doesn’t have to act at all, so it’s much easier to just dream yourself into the fiction (especially if nobody makes any noise).Â But if you have to chat to others about the actual story, within the fiction, and still pretend that it is true – then the willing suspension of disbelief becomes the all important thing.
I think that this is the reason why found footage works so well. It’s just impossible to role play, however casually, if you’re constantly reminded that there’s a whole camera team – with makeup people and everything – standing just off-screen. Found footage is all about removing the idea of the team behind the camera and making it easier to believe.
This is also why the idea of hoaxing people was so popular at the start of the Internet. It was difficult to tell what was true and what wasn’t. But players are more sophisticated now. You can just shake hands with them at the start, and then they can pretend that it is true, even though they know it isn’t.
Will there be a free demo at release to allow potential buyers to try the game for themselves before paying for it? I can imagine that many will want to see first-hand whether it’s their cup of tea or not before purchasing.
That’s not currently the plan.
The game feels like it would be right at home on tablets. Are there any plans for a release on mobile devices?
I completely agree. It would be great on tablets – and on smart phones. I would personally love to explore the media files on my laptop or tablet and then be able to keep tabs on the discussions through my phone. How soon it happens will depend on the success of the launch, though.
Are there any plans to move the experience outside of the game client in future, such as requiring the player to track down clues on various websites and things like that? Or do you perceive that it will remain self-contained, as it is now?
I have to say that I think that defeats the purpose. I could easily imagine us making a kind of extension for marketing purposes â€¦ but the whole point of Cloud Chamber is that it is self-contained. For me, it completely ruins the emotional involvement, when I have to jump around websites and shift interfaces and all the rest. I know there’s a small, dedicated audience – but it just doesn’t work for me (or for the larger audience, it seems).