July 8, 2014 9:00 AM | Lena LeRay
The definition of "game" is hotly debated at times. There are a lot of games that hover around the edges of the definition because they lack one or more characteristics of things we can easily point to and say, "That's definitely a game." Cloud Chamber is one such game, lacking a defined win condition, a game over screen, lives, or any traditional gameplay mechanics. Instead, Danish developer Investigate North seems to have come up with something that captures everything people enjoy about alternate reality marketing campaigns, left out the marketing, and added a healthy dose of real science.
The game is all about telling a story. In it, there's a research institute run (and presumably owned) by Gustav Petersen. The Petersen institute doesn't seem to have been doing so well in the financial arena recently, and Gustav's daughter, Kathleen, has convinced him to let her hire a documentary crew in the hopes of leveraging the power of multimedia to get young people interested in the work they are doing. Something went very badly, and now Kathleen is missing and the people she was working with to make the documentary have uploaded all of the files, video and other, that they've collected to a fictional software system called Crowdscape in the hopes that its users can help them figure out what is going on.
Crowdscape creates a virtual landscape in which the files are housed. Users, which are the players of the game, can travel along set paths to get to new files, with more important files being placed at higher elevation. Some of the files are images and others are video, but every file comes with its own Reddit-style discussion board where players can comment on the video, what they think is going on in the story, or whatever else they might want... though discussions of what users had for breakfast, for example, are likely to get voted down.
Although players have to visit the files in a predetermined sequence, they're not in chronological order and players get access to almost all of the information there is as fast as they feel like progressing through it. There's a lot to sift through, and although the user base is small for the moment because the only people playing are members of the press, it feels like there is a lot of potential for a vibrant community of interested people to dissect the files and uncover the heart of the story through discussion.
Growing a community is going to be key to the game's success because those discussion boards are where the real interactivity of the game comes into play. A community is already starting to form, with current players offering explanations and hyperlinks to help others understand the science used in the story, but Investigate North isn't sitting on their laurels, either. Within the game itself, players receive notifications when others like or respond to their comments. Creating an account requires nothing but an email address, a password, and a username, and by default notifications are sent to the player's email as well. Outside of the game, though, the developers are quick to respond to comments about the game on Twitter and are already taking an upbeat attitude towards community management.
Cloud Chamber has been designed by and for people who spend large amounts of their time using the internet for information, entertainment, and socialization. Tapping into how young people live their lives isn't just a theme in the game, it's part of Investigate North's core game design philosophy, and it shows. Players don't have to engage in the discussions to progress through the game at all, but the players who engage others are likely to get the most out of the game until the passage of time has led to the creation of robust discussions for lurkers to read through.
One could argue that the game is basically a fancy Reddit forum with neat sound and visuals but with discussion material that is predetermined for the users, and in a sense that's true. Investigate North probably could have uploaded all the videos to YouTube (instead of requiring users to have QuickTime installed to run the game) and created a special subreddit to do basically the same thing, but it would not have been the same experience. The Crowdscape fiction allows them to create a more immersive audiovisual environment that does add to the experience.
To give an example of how that is so: The game alludes to bass lines early in the story, and there always seems to be some kind of bass line going in the game. The music changes as the player moves along and gets dampened when the player goes to access one of the media files that make up the game's primary goal, but the bass is eternal in Crowdscape and Reddit doesn't have that going for it. Occasionally, extra sound bytes play as the player approaches certain files, potentially adding new dimensions to what is going on.
As a personal anecdote, Cloud Chamber is one of the first games I played on a new computer for which I forgot to buy speakers, making headphones my only sound option. Having played it with headphones, I wouldn't use speakers to for Cloud Chamber, not without really good subwoofers attached and turned up.
Investigate North has done a pretty good job addressing accessibility for Cloud Chamber. The videos don't all have closed captions at this time, but a representative has assured IndieGames that they will by the time the game launches later this month. None of the UI elements are distinguished by color alone, which means that although a full range of color is used in both the landscape visualizations and the videos, colorblind folk won't have anything to worry about. The one area in which the game seems to be lacking in terms of accessibility is that there are no keyboard controls for anything but typing discussion posts. All navigation is performed via mouse. Its a bit of a shame since the game has no twitchy, reaction-based gameplay and it seems like keyboard shortcuts could be found that would cover everything, but Investigate North's representative has indicated that there are no plans to add improved keyboard support.
It's hard to make recommendations about who would or wouldn't like Cloud Chamber because it doesn't fit into any of the traditional game molds. No price has yet been announced, but there will be a one-time fee to purchase the game and no subscription required. It's coming to Windows and Mac via Steam later this month.