Load up Cloud Chamber for the first time and you might be confused as to what it actually is. Investigate North’s ambitious and original title won plaudits following the game’s original Danish Beta last year, but as an outsider looking in you might be confused as to just how much it can be considered a game at all.
Cloud Chamber follows in the footsteps of the likes of In Memoriam, 42 Entertainment’s I Love Bees and Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero. Yes, we’re in ARG (Alternate Reality Game) territory; but where those projects had you scouring fake websites on the internet, decoding sound files or traipsing around the world to find payphones in a hunt to get to the bottom of their central mysteries, Cloud Chamber is entirely self-contained.
You see, everything in Cloud Chamber occurs within the game client. There’s no external websites to be hacked into, you won’t be rudely awoken in the middle of the night by strange voicemails, and you won’t receive real-life emails from the characters in the game. Instead, unraveling Investigate North’s mystery involves moving through a variety of 3D landscapes and examining video, photos and scanned documents in an effort to try and piece together exactly what is going on.
Cloud Chamber’s story revolves around Kathleen Petersen, an ambitious young physicist working for her Father’s scientific research group, the Petersen Institute. Kathleen is simultaneously trying to uncover the truth about her late mother, but also attempting to make a breakthrough in how we understand the universe. Video takes the form of “found footage” (think The Blair Witch Project or Paranormal Activity), while there’s also a multitude of diary entries, text messages, emails, transcripts and photographs of people, places and plenty of equipment to be examined for clues. With everything presented out of chronological order, it’s up to you to try and make sense of it all. It’s partly a mystery, partly a sci-fi thriller, though despite some of the odd goings on, Investigate North has grounded it all in believable science, painstakingly ensuring that the various ideas explored in the game are based in fact.
They’ve achieved this in part by working closely with CERN. In case you didn’t know, CERN is responsible for creating the Large Hadron Collider, as well as effectively being the organization behind the genesis of the World Wide Web. Over the years, the laboratory has made numerous scientific breakthroughs, so, basically, they know their neutrinos from their protons. Their output in-game is most keenly felt in the smattering of documentary excerpts littered around each of the game’s landscapes, fleshing out some of the concepts and ideas behind the narrative and providing everything with just enough plausibility to keep you intrigued and not write the whole thing off as a load of old cobblers.
Aside from the science-y stuff, the various videos and documents gradually uncover the relationship between Kathleen and her colleagues, as well as her history with her father and the legacy of her mother. As everything is presented out of sequence and via dribs and drabs, you’ll often think you have an idea of how everything fits together, only to come across something which raises yet further questions or requires you to re-evaluate your understanding. There’s a risk that it could all end up suffering the same fate as The X-Files and end up presenting too many questions and not enough answers, but so far Investigate North appears to have a clear understanding of how everything fits together to make the bigger picture. With at least 5 “seasons” planned to be released over time (no decision yet on whether these will be free to download or will require you to pay for the content), it looks like it’s going to be a while before we really uncover everything about Kathleen, her family and the true nature of “the experiment”. The use of recognizable actors does somewhat subtract from the believability of the footage you watch – Gethin Anthony (who played Renly Barathion in Game of Thrones) and Jesper Christensen (who played Mr White in Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale) both have major roles – but at least it means that everything is well acted, while providing the whole thing with a degree of prestige uncommon for these sorts of projects.
Of course, this is an ARG, so social interaction is key to the experience. In Cloud Chamber, every time you open up a “node” to examine another bit of evidence, a chat thread also opens up alongside it, filled with the comments and thoughts of other players, complete with a Reddit-style voting button against each. You can also send messages to other players directly via an in-game mail system, and keep track of when your comments receive replies in various threads. To act as an incentive to do so, some of the nodes in the game are blocked off until you’ve contributed enough to the overall discussion.
It’s certainly an interesting idea – not to mention a brave one – but it’s also incredibly risky: if players don’t interact with each other then the entire thing will fall down, while there’s always the potential to come across major spoilers in the various message threads. There’s also the danger that players coming to the party late could be left behind and faced with a mass of dead message boards, so the regularity of future updates will be key to keeping people involved in the experience. It’s certainly a bold move by the developer though, and the ability to report comments should hopefully minimize some of the risks involved, but only time will tell if the whole thing is a success.
Visually, the environments you find yourself in are pleasingly abstract, and many of them could happily reside on your desktop as wallpaper. There’s plenty of neon lighting, wireframe models and 3D-rendered mountains and trees, and the documents you’ll examine all look believable. Meanwhile the found-footage segments of the game benefit from decent production values courtesy of the team behind the hit Danish TV show The Killing, the whole thing is well-written, and it’s all driven along by a pleasant electronica soundtrack featuring artists such as Burial and Trentemøller.
Cloud Chamber is certainly an interesting project, and with its release on PC and Mac projected for the end of the month you don’t have long to wait to see if it’s a success or not. Having played through around half of the first season, I’m happy to report that the various story threads do a good job of keeping you intrigued, though I do wonder whether the game’s dependence on social interaction over actual gameplay will turn some people off. It’s certainly not the first game to attempt to bring ARG principles into the videgame space, and it most likely won’t be the last – but the fact it exists at all is enough to make it noteworthy. And at least it’s providing something a bit different from the usual fare of shooting aliens in space, racing cars, or the announcement of yet another MOBA. ARGs are hardly a crowded genre, and there’s a confidence in how Investigate North is bringing all of the game’s disparate ideas together that’s worthy of respect.
Ambitious, well-written, intriguing and risky – all these terms and more can be used to describe Cloud Chamber, but so far at least it’s shaping up to be a promising experiment. Keep an eye out for our final review following the game’s release. In the meantime, let us know what you think in the comments.