Cloud Chamber preview: a persistent online mystery game, coming in July

"We didn't even think of it as a game before this autumn,” says Christian Fonnesbech, of his interactive mystery story, Cloud Chamber.

Cloud Chamber is redolent of the types of cult TV show that get picked apart by fans as they seek the answers to the show's central questions. What happened to Fox Mulder's sister? Who killed Laura Palmer? What's Bad Wolf? WTF is Lost doing? Why is someone making a movie of Farscape and not Space Precinct?

In the case of Cloud Chamber the driving question for season one is 'Who killed Ingrid Petersen?' while a more nebulous puzzle—that of a strange signal received from space—will unfold across several seasons (funding permitting).

Fonnesbech has been working on online and digital narratives for over a decade. He says that in 2007 “we hit on this discovery that if we took short mysterious filmed episodes and put them inside a closed social network and let people discuss them and [earn points], we had a new way of telling stories which was both a game and a film and that was social.”

Fonnesbech's company made several ARG-like experiences for clients including one where “for 18 months we pretended we had a guy onboard a research ship and the kids were the only ones who could help him because he'd discovered there was a mad scientist on board who was working to blow up the world.” However, the time-limited nature of those projects proved frustrating and Fonnesbech began to discuss the concept of a persistent story with the Danish Film Institute.

“My parents are both biologists and I really wanted to tell a story about growing up in a science family,” says Fonnesbech of the astrophysics-based plot. “That's where the idea of the Petersen Institute and the idea of Kathleen being a scientist and battling with her parents' view of the world comes from.” The Petersen Institute is the game's shadowy research organisation.

Cloud Chamber was initially marketed towards fans of shows like Breaking Bad, but they weren't looking for interaction from their stories. “Too much homework,” was the verdict. Instead, Fonnesbech discovered that people used to playing games were intrigued and ended up investing anywhere from 10 to 25 hours in Cloud Chamber, picking through clues and discussing them online.

The game soft-launched in Denmark last year and is being tweaked in advance of a global release in July. Currently, the video and images themselves are intriguing but their presentation feels oddly formal, like a literature discussion group. It's because the snippets are accompanied by the sorts of questions you'd get asked in exams—“Who is attracted to who, here?”, “Is this related to the signal? If so, how?” Happily, these are being exchanged for a more natural messageboard system where players can suggest their own discussion threads.

The rhythm action game which plays out as you shuttle between media files is being abandoned too. It was designed as a way of telling people not used to playing games that they were using the systems correctly. With the focus now on a gaming audience, that's proven unnecessary. The navigation itself might still need a spot of fine-tuning, though. I found myself accidentally clicking on files far away on the map and was then stuck trundling towards them, unable to change direction to investigate anything I saw on the way.

The 150 media files are scattered across artificial islandscapes and interspersed with electronic music. Key files are positioned high up while ancillary information is placed lower. Rather than trying to convince you that everything you're seeing is real, Cloud Chamber opts for a highly stylised approach.

“The days of hoaxing are over,” explains Fonnesbech. “The Blair Witch Project did it and everything since that you've known was unreal. You do a handshake with people as they arrive and the handshake is that from now on in we're pretending it's true. That's all you need.” It also let the team focus on high production values, acting and a unified user interface over strict realism.

Given the persistent nature of the game I ask whether Fonnesbech is concerned about spoilers creeping into the discussions as players finish the first season. “You're never going to find a note that says the butler did it,” he says. “The key events are missing and what you have is all the events around [those]. It's your job to extrapolate what happened. It's always going to be up for discussion.”

Indeed, Fonnesbech refers to the style of storytelling used in Cloud Chamber as “an adventure game where the combat is replaced by discussion.” If you've looked at all the right files you should know who killed Ingrid, or at least have a theory about it, he adds, but “the pleasure is in the discussion, not in getting the answer.”