Image courtesy of Investigate North
Kathleen Petersen, Deputy Director of Research at the Petersen institute, has gone missing. Hoping to learn what became of Kathleen, her co-workers Max and Thomas shared the footage of their investigations into the mysterious signal they were tasked with investigating at the Institute…the same signal that heralded Kathleen’s gradual emotional deterioration and disappearance.
Investigate North’s Cloud Chamber is a video game that attempts to cleanse itself of nearly every design element typically associated with video games. In it, players assume the role of investigator, poring through video footage and scanned evidence to piece together the exact nature of the Petersen Institute’s research into the enigmatic signal, and to figure out what happened to Kathleen. Stripped of traditional methods of interaction, players unlock a branching spiderweb of evidence by selecting a piece of evidence represented by a node, exploring it, and discussing the new information’s implications with fellow players.
The evidence in Cloud Chamber is presented with minimal context, organizing the evidence thematically rather than chronologically. For example, in Part I, where the focus is on Kathleen’s disappearance, players are thrust into the experience through a computer-generated island and presented with a single question, “What is the Signal?” Selecting that question pulls up a video that begins the faux documentary in media res, as the game’s three protagonists break into the Petersen Institute’s roof. While there, the three tap into a massive antenna to listen to a signal without ever properly introducing who they are, why they are interested in the signal, or even what it sounds like. Watching that video unlocks a winding path along the island to “Her Decision”, a series of short, unordered snippets showing a frazzled Kathleen’s emotional deterioration before finally unlocking the video “You are Entering”, where Max and Thomas explain that they plan on releasing everything they’ve learned and appeal for the player’s help in finding out what happened to Kathleen.
The game’s story nodes focus on delivering a high level of authenticity, while the game engine itself delivers a surreal context that takes players from the initial island into increasingly surreal dreamscapes that resemble everything from outer space to neural networks. The juxtaposition of story and game environment should be jarring. But somehow, switching back and forth from the story’s “found footage” storytelling format to an abstract web of connections makes it easier to fall into an almost trance-like state while progressing.
One of the main challenges Cloud Chamber players must face is getting a sense of the story’s timeline, since practically all context is merely implied. Sometimes, these cues are easy to pick up on: the date on an email, the location of the video, the odd contextual cue dropped in conversation. Other times, the ordering becomes more nuanced. Do the characters seem guarded, or do they seem to trust each other? Does the date on that flyer contradict the conversation featured a few nodes back? After getting a basic idea of what happened, it’s much easier to start investigating the numerous and often contradictory theories surrounding the signal. Cloud Chamber never resolves this question, and in the end there are at least half a dozen cohesive explanations about the nature of Kathleen, Max, and Thomas’ investigation.
To facilitate discussion, each node has its own conversation thread, where players can point out clues, explain the frequent references to scientific research, and debate why the information was included in the first place. Taking part in conversations unlocks additional nodes that, while not necessary to the story, add additional insight into the often-contradictory latticework of possibilities. As older comments are phased into the background, new discussions constantly surface in the threads, as players going through the game together form informal cohorts, discovering the secrets together. These conversations often switch from the fictional narrative to the core concepts that shape Cloud Chamber, ranging from particle physics and space exploration to religion and parallel worlds.
Cloud Chamber bears a striking resemblance to alternate reality games, with players encouraged to collectively piece together a disjointed narrative. But by packaging the game as a video game, Cloud Chamber unlocks a number of possibilities rarely explored by the genre. By having its players unlock discussion threads as they progress through the story, the barrier of entry for players coming later into the experience is greatly reduced, providing a rich experience for players beginning today, and a year from today. Cloud Chamber will allow people to peel back its mysteries as long as there are people willing to play it and servers available to host the conversations.
Creating Cloud Chamber as a video game also granted Investigate North much greater control over controlling players’ experiences investigating the story. While it would have been possible to distribute the game’s assets through a series of websites like many alternate reality games, placing all the assets in a central location and providing a visually rich method of navigating those files helps control players’ mindsets going into the game. The peaks and valleys of the virtual landscapes that lend structure to each of the game’s ten chapters provides few clues into the actual narrative, but goes a long way towards shaping the experience by giving players a visual representation of the game’s disjointed narrative. This is augmented by the game’s soundtrack: the deep, pulsing bass notes of the music that guides players from story fragment to story fragment gives the game an ethereal, otherworldly tone that shapes the experience as much as the videos themselves.
Both alternate reality games and video games typically focus on empowering players by creating the illusion that they have control over the story. Investigate North chose to shatter that illusion, putting its players in a more passive role seen with interactive novels like Cathy’s Book and Skeleton Creek, or television shows steeped in mystery like Twin Peaks and Lost. And while Cloud Chamber‘s focus was on an open-ended mystery, the format has the potential to complement a wide variety of stories, from whodunnit to romance and everything in between. Cloud Chamber leaves a host of unanswered questions at the end. One of the biggest is where Investigate North will take its innovative format next.
Cloud Chamber is available on Steam for $19.99.