Monday, January 26, 2009

Embedded Games: Cloud Atlas

This post is my contribution for this month's Round Table discussion in which Corvus Elrod asks us what our favorite piece of literature would look like if it had been created as a game first. I love this topic and have enjoyed seeing other writers tackle some amazing literary works, including Blood Meridian, House of Leaves, and Pride and Prejudice. I recommend you check out the other participants.

". . . I glimpsed all the lifes my soul ever was till far-far back b'fore the Fall, yay, glimpsed from a gallopin' horse in a hurrycane, but I cudn't describe 'em 'cos there ain't the words no more but well I mem'ry that dark Kolekole girl with her tribe's tattoo, yay, she was a saplin' bendin' an' I was that hurrycane, I blowed her she bent, I blowed harder she bent harder an' closer, then I was Crow's wings beatin' an' she was the flames lickin' an' when the Kolekole saplin' wrapped her willowy fingers around my neck, her eyes was quartzin' and she murmed in my ear, Yay, I will, again, an' yay, we will, again." - Cloud Atlas

It took me quite a long time to decide which book I would dare to reimagine as a game. I chose Cloud Atlas in part because I hope I can bring new readers to an impressive piece of fiction. I also picked Cloud Atlas know how difficult it would be, so forgive me ahead of time if the game I am about to describe doesn't sound like fun. I'm not entirely sure it is supposed to be.

The Could Atlas game embeds six games into one, beginning with the Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. The player controls the titular protagonist in a third-person perspective through a free-roaming environment. This game segment is exploratory in nature, with only a few objectives for the player to complete. As the protagonist explores an isolated and remote colony island in the 1850s, sketching the people, places, and events, a narrative slowly takes shape of subjugation, desperation, and an ignorant protagonist.

This story ends abruptly during a sketch, panning out to reveal a young man rummaging through a sketch book in a room clearly not his own. The player takes control of this protagonist, revealed to be a poor composer living in 1931 Belgium. The player explores the narrative by interacting with artifacts in the home and NPCs, collecting information and experiences. These narrative artifacts take the form of musical notes to be fit into a puzzle game akin to Auditorium in which the player slowly builds, in pieces, a musical composition. As each portion of the song come together, a letter takes shape on the screen from the protagonist to a dear friend.

These letters segue into a new game in which the player controls Luisa Rey, an acquaintance of the letters' recipient. This segment is a stealth action mystery game involving corporate greed, lies, and murder. Information must be gathered while avoiding the guards and ruffians whilst Luisa Rey narrates important elements of the story, slowly solving the mystery. This portion ends with climactic car chase, narrated by an old man.

Screen fades to old man reading aloud a manuscript. This man soon comes into conflict with over-the-top gangster types and finds himself imprisoned in a retirement home. The game becomes a point-and-click comedic adventure similar to Sam & Max. The player must gather tools and befriend crazy residents to create elaborate escape plans.

When the first escape plan is foiled, the camera pans out to reveal a young woman, Somni, playing the same videogame, at which point she is forcibly apprehended. What follows is an interrogation interspersed with flashbacks. The player has absolutely only minimal control over the character during flashbacks to her life as an android who slowly becomes self-aware in a futuristic, corporate controlled city. This interrogation is recorded in a small orb.

The screen cuts off mid-sentence and the orb is quickly passed between strangers. The player takes control of a young boy in a post-apocalyptic village. After meeting a representative of the last remnant of civilization, the village is raided and the player must survive bandits, rescue survivors, and explore the last remaining ruins of Somni's facility in a third-person platform style. The story ends around a fire where an old man recounts a tale of reincarnation and a messiah-like woman. Removing the orb from his pocket, he activates the recording device, a hologram of Somni appears and the interrogation continues.

At this point the game works its way out again, but each segment after Somni is informed by the previous. Flashbacks to the other game segments reveal insights into solving the current mystery or puzzle and connections are drawn between the protagonists in each. Credits roll as the player concludes Ewing's sketchbook and the player/narrative created composition plays to the backdrop of game images.

Like a Russian matrioshka doll, the six stories that make up Cloud Atlas are embedded within each other. The game spirals inward through time to a single narrative and works its way back out again, finishing each novella along the way. Each segment differs dramatically in style and format. Though they can all stand independently, a tale of humanity's propensity for malevolence matched only by its persistent reincarnation of magnanimity and perseverance, of sacrifice in the face of fear and an unknown future, weaves itself eloquently through the entire experience.


  1. Intiguing. Yet another Book I have to read.

    You've mentioned some time-based events like "his story ends abruptly during a sketch". How would that work? Would that be a scripted event of a particular sketch and you have to find that sketch in order to proceed to the next part. Or would the break occur randomly in any given sketch?

    And also: How would you communicate to the player what you he is supposed to do?

  2. @ Krystian

    The abrupt endings would ideally take place during a visual pause in which the character is not player controlled. Showing the completed sketch to the player would be one such occurence.

    As for how to communicate objectives and controls to the player; honestly I hadn't given that much thought. I guess that is why I am not a game designer. I suppose a short tutorial would take place at the beginning of each segment covering the UI and quest list. I think its important the visual elements of even the UI systems change between segments, so I can't imagine getting around a tutorial of sorts.

  3. I'm asking because this because I experienced problems when trying to make a game that would be more .. poetic. If you give somebody a gun and set them in front of a monster, the goal of the game is pretty clear even without any explanations.

    If you give them a sketchbook and an isolated and remote colony island and people are left clueless. Even if there is a tutorial. Even if you are actually there and talking them trough it.

    This can be quite disappointing, as you can imagine. :(

  4. BTW, how did you guys manage to merge two twitter streams into one Badge? I'm looking for EXACTLY that function!