By Bartłomiej Musajew
The documentary unreality, the immensity of the universe reduced to the immaculate sterility of a scientific lab, the static velocity of neural networks, the silent suicide of the author. Enter Cloud Chamber.
The story of Cloud Chamber perfectly adheres to the rules listed in a popular handbook Cheap and trite sci-fi/crime fantasies for dummies. At no point does the game go beyond the accepted set of clichés. There is the mysterious murder in the background. There is the authoritative father figure. Potential murderer, of course. There is his incredibly clever daughter. Yes, clever automatically entails sweaters and excludes emotional life. And yes, there is the obligatory moment of emotional epiphany, emphasized by the taking off of the sweater. And, above all, there is science. Or rather “science” as a myth for the ignorant. The devil and divine genius, the messiah clad in a laboratory coat, the co(s)mic angels and saints with nuclear halos, the wizards and witches plotting to destroy or redefine the universe with their probes and microscopes. Miss the superstition? No worries, “science” will not fail to administer your daily dose of digestible demons.
Despite the narrative being trite, its composition might actually prove interesting. Cloud Chamber is divided into three major themes: the potential murder theme, the sexual discovery theme and the “scientific” research theme – or the sounds-of-the-universe theme. These themes develop on three time planes. In the past there are two major characters: Gustav and Ingrid. In the present there are: Gustav again, Kathleen, Max and Tom. And there is also the metapresent of the database. The narrative is conveyed as a series of nodes in this database, which the player can navigate in a mostly predetermined manner. The nodes contain various pieces of data, such as video clips, e-mails, police reports, etc.
Obviously, this is just a theoretical division – the narrative constitutes a coherent structure and, what is more important, a neatly composed one. This is not the place for a comprehensive analysis of the narrative patterns, so I will limit myself to a few examples. Early in the game we notice that the past is not just a static set of materials to be discovered and put together in Kathleen’s present. Quite the contrary, the present and the past start to converge, the present follows the pattern of the past, the past exerts an actual influence on the present. For instance, we learn of Kathleen’s budding affection for Max just as we learn of Ingrid’s, Kathleen’s mother, first encounter with Gustav, who will become Ingrid’s husband and Kathleen’s father. Also, the themes are strictly connected: for instance, the progress of the scientific research merges with the increasing sexual tension between Kathleen, Max and Tom.
The emphasis on the words “we learn of” is not accidental. Navigating through a purely digital (or rather digital within digital, as every game space is digital) space of a database is different from acting within a “physical” environment. The main difference is that we do not actually interact with the presented world, but with information about some other space (which we cannot access). That is why we do not directly experience the events but learn of them. This means that from our point of view all the events already took place, that is all of them are past (even Kathleen’s present is past from our perspective). The database, from our point of view, is static; it is there only for us to witness, not change. Dynamic interaction with most games assumes a hierarchy of tenses, for instance once I have saved the princess, the ongoing wedding is more present for me than the memory of her imprisonment – unless I decide to replay the previous mission. In Cloud Chamber we may only interact with records of the past, that is why each chunk of data is equally present, no matter whether it refers to Ingrid or to Kathleen. This lack of a temporal hierarchy neatly reinforces the compositional patterns indicated in the previous paragraph. After all, how can I really know that Ingrid’s past is more past than Kathleen’s? Perhaps they are all parallel presents?
On the other hand, access to particular nodes is limited. We progress through this database in a mainly linear manner. Linear doesn’t mean corresponding to the actual chronology of the events. The nodes are arranged as to fulfil the needs of the narrative. As I have already mentioned, an event from Ingrid’s life may be evoked just at the moment when Kathleen experiences something similar. One cannot help asking questions: Why are the nodes presented in this particular order? Perhaps the connections between Kathleen’s and her mother lives are purely illusory? Perhaps they are simply produced by the juxtaposition of the nodes? Perhaps Kathleen relives her mother’s live because she unconsciously wants to live up to the narrative? Max and Tom say at the beginning that it is they who constructed the database. Perhaps this arrangement is just a joke on their part?
Despite its interesting composition, the game does not go beyond the confines of triteness. The reason for this is simple: rationalization and “scientification”. Instead of simply being allowed to enjoy the compositional magic of repetition and juxtaposition, the melody of the narrative, we are constantly bombarded with “scientific” theories. While the question is not entirely resolved, the influence of some “co(s)mic” forces incessantly moves to the foreground. Like dementia being described as a result of some demonic design. “Scientific” superstition. Cloud Chamber can be compared to a neat musical composition with superimposed cheesy lyrics.
This simile is not accidental. Sound is at the heart of the mystery. Or, to be exact, signals from the universe are. The problem is the whole matter is too explicit. At one point Max, a DJ, uses the signal as a part of his new set. We learn that Kathleen, on hearing this music, experiences a kind of shock, which arises her sexual urge towards Max and leads to a breakthrough in her research. This shock is actually presented using such cheap techniques as disco lights mixing with images of the universe, Kathleen taking off the sweater while dancing, and finally Kathleen beginning to faint. (This is really short of a teenage romcom about “a nerd” going “vamp.” Unfortunately, most of the materials, both audio-visual and verbal, are made using banal techniques borrowed from cheap fiction and pseudo-documentaries.) And, of course, we hear the actual “cosmic” piece. Or, actually, we just hear regular music. Unfortunately, we cannot experience this extraordinary influence, because it exists only within fictional confines for particular fictional characters. If this force is explicitly presented, there will always be a discrepancy between what it is supposed to represent and what it actually represents. The same goes for cheap and unimaginative lighting effects, such as “cosmic” fireworks coming out of Gustav’s laptop. The illusion is inherently broken, we are shown a plastic Godzilla stomping on the cardboard Tokyo. The best way of avoiding this is to suggest instead of showing. You may hint at the “cosmic” music, you may build up the mystery around it, but never let the player hear it.
Interpret me to death
For a game in which sound plays a significant role, the use of soundtrack is disappointing. While the tracks (borrowed from such artists as Trentemøller or Burial) are good, they are loosely incorporated into the game’s structure. Most of the time we just hear them in the background, as if coming from a cosmic MP3 player hovering somewhere outside the player’s field of vision (perhaps that is the solution to the mystery of the signals?). Occasionally the tunes are present in one of the clips or their composers’ names are enumerated in some shortlists made by Max (enumerated, that is isolated, without any context), but that is not enough to actually make them an integral part of the whole. They could have been easily replaced by other tracks without the game losing its unity. Soundtrack should not simply fulfil the function of an appended playlist – which is the case here.
The problem of disconnectedness is not limited to music. In Cloud Chamber there are many raw extra- and intertextual references, such as mentions of some experiments, fragments of “documentaries” about space, bits from actual articles, etc. However, they are not processed to fit into this particular story; they are simply thrown in for players to make sense of. This is actually a poor and lazy device, which only encourages to impose your own simplified interpretations instead of actually experiencing the game.
Such superimposed interpretations are the crux of Cloud Chamber. The gameplay revolves around the idea of an attached fan forum. The player has to write comments in order to collect likes, which enable access to additional nodes. There is no actual feedback from the game, the player simply posts comments and gets likes from other players. The more ludicrous your theory, the more likes you will probably get. Just to give you one example: in the later part of the game there is a scene of Kathleen and Max having sex. This scene is aptly titled “a consummation.” The meaning of the word “consummation” is quite obvious: it literally refers to the act the player is witnessing (and perhaps, at the narrative level, it describes the climax of the story). And yes, few of the aspiring Sherlocks, prompted into the “interpretation mode” by the requirements of the gameplay, seemed to have noticed that. Quite the contrary, top contributors produced absurd theories of an exceptional length describing the “hidden meaning” of the scene. One of them, actually the choice of the audience, ended with a lovely question, which I simply cannot help quoting: “also, a consummation… of what by whom?”
The main strength of Cloud Chamber is also its main weakness. The fragmentary nature of the database allows for interesting narrative patterns. In some respects, however, this fragmentation entails disconnectedness. Some references seem thrown into the game; the soundtrack is detached; the gameplay reinforces imposed interpretations. One cannot help asking: if sound is supposed to play such an important role in the game, why are we not allowed to interact with and through sound? As it is, we are not invited to explore the world of Cloud Chamber; we are forced to rip this world apart. Instead of an intimate artistic consummation, we commit an interpretative rape.