I Saw Black Clouds arrives on Steam today; the latest FMV interactive movie that follows in the footsteps of The Bunker, The Complex, and Five Dates. I’ve never played any of those other games, so if I had to make my own comparison it would be the Netflix movie, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch where you sit back and watch the movie and at key decision points you get to input a choice and effectively direct the film, or more accurately, change the script. The branching narrative spans 579 scenes that can take you to one of four possible endings. Your choices also affect sliding scales for Denial, Acceptance, and Guild as well as personal relationships with two supporting characters and five personality traits like Strength, Honesty, Tact, Morality, and Introspection.
Rated M for a game and likely R if it were a movie, I Saw Black Clouds deals with some dark subject matter. The movie opens with a suicide then we move on to the funeral where we meet Kristina, the protagonist of our story who decides to investigate the death of her friend. For the next 90+ minutes you will investigate numerous locations and talk to several people, all the while making spur of the moment decisions that can change the course of the narrative or even end your story if you choose unwisely. For those who want more time to make these choices there is a toggle in the options to pause the game rather than try to beat the timer bar.
There’s not much I can say about the actual movie without spoiling. There is a genuinely interesting story going on, told with some awkward pacing issues that will have you wandering through woods or an abandoned hospital for no obvious reason. For those planning on playing four times to get to all four endings I recommend you make notes of past decisions, as there is no handy narrative flowchart like Detroit Become Human or other games with branching stories. I did appreciate the ability to fast-forward through scenes you have already viewed to instantly arrive at the next decision point – something you will use heavily on the third and fourth viewing. I was impressed with just how much content each path contains. While some scenes will obviously exist in all paths there are major scenes and events in each path that keeps the experience fresh.
Technically speaking, the video quality was surprisingly good and looked great in 4K with good lighting, color, and detail. The moviemaking quality was also good with nice direction, camera work, acting, and some interesting scenery thanks to its UK location. They even managed to get some experienced stars like Nicole O’Neill (Penny Dreadful), Rachel Jackson (Outlander) and Larry Rew (Avatar). My only minor issue was with the audio in certain scenes where there was background music, such as the bar with the singer. There is an obvious audio hiccup in the background track at each decision point; a byproduct of branching narratives that has plagued the genre since Dragon’s Lair on laserdisc. You can shorten (but not eliminate) the hiccups by installing the game on a fast SSD. Aside from that, the score, sound effects, and voice acting are all excellent with a nice multi-channel mix that I would stack up against any of my DVD’s.
More movie than game, I Saw Black Clouds is a fun bit of interactive entertainment for those looking for an interesting psychological thriller they can actually participate in. You’ll make over 200 decisions during each viewing, and while some will change your course dramatically, others choices seem to have no bearing on the story. You might get a quick reaction video or verbal response but then the choice will switch to where the writers want/need you to go. Superficial choices are just part of the genre; ask any Telltale gamer.
I had fun playing/viewing I Saw Black Clouds; it was dark, suspenseful, and genuinely frightening in some scenes. There was enough original content to justify multiple passes and that Skip Scene button is a lifesaver. I kept forgetting about the relationship and personality tracking until the end of the game, although you can view the stats screen in real-time while playing. There are no cues in the game to indicate when you do something to affect these stats, so it’s all pretty mysterious on how all this works or if it even matters. You should have no trouble unlocking all 15 achievements if you do play the game four times, but finding your path to all four endings will require a good memory or jotting down past choices. I Saw Black Clouds would also make a great party game; just be sure to disable the timer so you all have time to argue over what to do next. For only $13 this costs just as much as a DVD and easily just as entertaining; perhaps more so since you will likely watch this movie multiple times. Definitely worth checking out, especially if it goes on sale.