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Cloud Chamber review: ARGuing over nothing

Cloud Chamber Screenshot - Investigation

Cloud Chamber is an oddity. It’s a sci-fi mystery “game” that blends real-world astrophysics with a murder mystery and the answer to life, the universe, and everything. It tells its story out of order, with a collection of documents, emails, drawings, and live-action video clips for you to sort through and piece together. The gameplay -- if you can call it that -- consists of viewing each data node and discussing the clues with other users, earning access to locked nodes through “likes” earned from other users.

The story is told in found footage style, with a documentarian named Thomas hired by a young scientist named Kathleen to help open the world’s eyes to a possible scientific breakthrough. Along the way they’re aided by Max, a DJ and brilliant sound engineer who helps Kathleen pinpoint the mysterious signal that could be the answer to everything. Piling on a layer of intrigue to the proceedings is Kathleen's father, who may or may not have killed his wife to cover up the same research Kathleen is taking on.

In terms of those broad strokes, we don’t really learn much more about the story beyond that. Each node provides finer details -- we learn about Kathleen’s connection to her mother, her parents’ unique relationship, and the interpersonal drama between Max, Thomas, and Kathleen -- but in terms of the larger mystery, Cloud Chamber does not provide definitive or satisfying answers.

Cloud Chamber

That’s where the players come in. Each node in the story includes a message board where players can discuss what they watched. Those who provide the most interesting interpretations may receive “likes” from other users, and those “likes” can be used to open up new nodes and learn more. In theory, and with perhaps a few more forms of legitimate gameplay, this system could have been really cool.

In practice, Cloud Chamber’s story doesn’t provide the depth necessary to warrant these discussions. All too often I found players overanalyzing minutiae at length, at times drawing grand meaning from editing errors or discrepancies between the voiced dialogue and the subtitles. The story is often so straightforward that it creates some nasty Occam’s Razor scenarios where players read too deeply into mundane details.

Cloud Chamber

The story beats worth discussing are almost all left vague, meant for players to interpret and share. Films do this all the time, with examples like Primer and Mulholland Drive igniting discussion and interpretation for years beyond their release. The difference is that those films inspire discussion where Cloud Chamber demands it without earning it. The result is a shallow story where you and a bunch of other shmucks all jump to conclusions, hoping for “likes” and responses from other players.

Cloud Chamber isn’t really a game. It barely even qualifies as an ARG. In either instance you’d be tasked with piecing together clues and solving mysteries in order to reveal an answer. It’s closer to a visual novel, but even that isn’t accurate since most of those still offer up some gameplay and a whole host of satisfying twists. Defying any real classification, Cloud Chamber is indescribable because it feels incomplete. It asks for the players’ money and time, yet they still must create the rewards for themselves. It looks expensive, with decent production values, semi-famous actors, and some real science fact behind the fiction, yet all that work, all that money, and all of your time never truly amounts to anything. We may never solve Kathleen’s mystery, but I doubt that’s the real tragedy here.

Enjoy random thoughts about the latest games, the Sega Saturn, or the occasional movie review? Follow me @JoeDonuts!

Below Average

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Joe Donato Video games became an amazing, artful, interactive story-driven medium for me right around when I played Panzer Dragoon Saga on Sega Saturn. Ever since then, I've wanted to be a part of this industry. Somewhere along the line I, possibly foolishly, decided I'd rather write about them than actually make them. So here I am.
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