Cloud Chamber is the perfect game for Neil DeGrasse Tyson groupies, those into the comic books of Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, and Alan Moore, and anybody willing to watch Primer more than once. It’s a non-competitive social experience, ideal for those who prefer roleplaying to combat and speculative analysis to puzzle solving. Much like J. J. Abrams’s recent experimental novel, S., Cloud Chamber uses a familiar framework—in this case, a manipulatable database and a gamified version of Reddit’s upvote/downvote crowdsourcing—in order to tell the story of a missing (and potentially mad) physicist, her sour documentarian, and her brilliant audio engineer/lover. The uncertainty of the narrative reflects the quantum mechanics posited in the premise, just as the nonlinear assortment of data nodes—be they video clips, diary entries, cached emails, blog posts, etc.—challenge players to research, engage, and ultimately challenge the material, rather than to simply accept and plow through it.
The result is both fascinating and frustrating, though the innovative presentation, in which the data points are rendered on a “landscape metaphor” that scatters them (elevating by importance) across through physical and abstract areas, keeps things on the positive end of the spectrum. That said, Assassin’s Creed and The Secret World, to say nothing of lighter, trippier games like Braid, have crafted elaborate metaphysical conspiracies that are grounded in actual gameplay, whereas ARGs (Augmented Reality Games) like Infamous: Second Son’s “Paper Trail” provide a more satisfying means of satisfying our “real-world” investigatory itches.
Cloud Chamber, on the other hand, is wedded to its scientific principles, which means that it provides no answers, only halfway-satisfying hypotheses. This is a “game” of peer-reviewed studies, in which players gradually peel back the conspiracy-filled forums (especially in the early, befuddling/overwhelming areas) by up-voting only the useful theories. In that sense, it’s hobbled by its community, which changes from day to day and chapter to chapter. The main story can be completed with little interaction, though the conclusion is a somewhat unsatisfying cliffhanger; to unlock all the content, you’ll need to garner the goodwill of your comrades, which results in a lot of repetitive, up-vote seeking posts. At the same time, the ability to sort by “best” and “most recent” posts (and a decent bunch of moderators, so far) ensure that everyone can derive something from the weightier, scientific sections that come directly from ESA (the European Space Agency).
Of course, that’s only a problem for those who insist on playing Cloud Chamber as if it’s an arcade game. In truth, it’s closer to those linear FMV-heavy games of the ’90s, with a mature, thoughtful plot that spans two generations (and two “murders”) and saturates itself in hard science. You’ll learn about gravitational fields, solar interference, positrons, and the invisible forces of the universe—neutrinos—as you attempt to trace the mysterious “signal” that may contain the source code for all of creation (i.e., the Big Bang); if there’s a villain in this piece, it may be the universe itself, or the way in which man is its own worst enemy. There are no easy, reassuring military stereotypes here, only the frank, panicked actions of real adults with real problems, and Investigate North has done an outstanding job in both casting and scripting to make each scenario suggested on the forums seem at least a little plausible. Cloud Chamber, in the end, may be little more than the sum of its ambitious, indulgent, mindboggling parts, but as a scientific experiment, it certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Cloud Chamber is now available on Steam from Investigate North.