Jumping into Serious Subject Matter
Publisher Wales Interactive has been at the forefront of a recent renaissance in FMV games, putting out awesome titles like The Complex and Late Shift (my personal favorite) that blend movie-quality footage with player decision-making. Think Telltale’s games but in live-action. I Saw Black Clouds, put together by Ghost Dog Films, is the publisher’s latest title, and while it makes some ambitious narrative choices, technical issues stymie the experience enough to make the game hard to fully recommend.
From the get-go, I Saw Black Clouds tackles some pretty serious subject matter. Protagonist Kristina is back in her hometown following the death of her friend, Emily, who recently took her own life. The opening shot is Emily’s hanging body, which makes it pretty clear from the get-go that the game isn’t going to shy away from sensitive material. Things do “cool off” for a bit after that as far as disturbing imagery goes as Kristina starts digging into the circumstances of her friend’s death. The story hops a bit between genre, sometimes paranormal horror, sometimes thriller, and sometimes something in-between, and it does a good job of introducing some interesting locations and people. To say much more about the plot in a game like this is to spoil its selling point, so I won’t say much more than that I respect, if not entirely like, a bold narrative choice that shapes the last third or so of the story. The change into the third act brings an attempted allegory of sorts to the forefront that doesn’t quite fire on enough cylinders to sell me on itself. It makes sense and seems great on paper, but, to quote Augie from Role Models, “I like the idea of it more than I actually like it.” When the story’s clicking, though, it’s pretty great, with some solid stretches of genuine tension.
Narrative aside, which is, of course, subjective, the editing just leaves a lot to be desired. I fully understand that maintaining cohesiveness and flow of footage in a project like this is hard, but the issues here stick out a bit more than they probably should and more noticeably than other games in the genre. Some jitter in between scenes, especially after branching decisions are made, is to be expected, but, too often, I Saw Black Clouds fails to use changes in focus or camera direction to mask these swaps. It wasn’t rare to have the camera pointed at a character, only to have them suddenly snap into a new position and continue. I also wasn’t completely satisfied with how the scenes were filmed to allow for decision-making time from the viewer. I’ve been happier with the result when other FMV projects put the choices on-screen a bit sooner, letting the viewer see the choices a second or two before dialogue ends. This speeds up downtime, avoiding awkward pauses. Those pauses, often awkward, are more present here, and often the characters stare at each other in silence for just long enough to make things uncomfortable before the scene changes.
The audio also doesn’t quite click either. I’m not an editor or a game designer, so I can’t say what the available options are for smoothing out background audio during scene changes, but it took me out of the moment when scenes had artificial background chatter or music that was constantly jumping in parts where there were multiple choices to be made in close proximity. The audio quality itself was also a bit inconsistent, with the dialogue sometimes dropping to a slightly (but noticeably) lower quality or the background chatter being markedly more clear than the spoken dialogue. None of these issues are particularly egregious by themselves, but, together and combined with the video editing issues, stack up to be fairly off-putting.
The big draw of this type of game is, of course, choice, and, again, things are a mixed bag. There are quite a few choices to make and four different possible endings. I didn’t see them all, but, from what I could tell, they ran the range from meaningful to cosmetic. There are definitely a few choices that had some impact on me, and it’s in those moments that the game shines brightest. That being said, there were also a frustrating number of choices that were thrown at me that didn’t properly inform me as to what I was actually choosing. Take one scene in which Kristina is walking through a forest. I was given a few choices between going left or going right, but I had absolutely no reason to think that one was going to better or worse than another. The same can be said for a few times in which I was exploring various locales or running away. Choices are great, but choices without proper context aren’t really any better than results chosen at random. Speaking of random, I had a bit of a hassle getting the game to recognize my mouse clicks for choice selections. During a few choices early on I was confused why the game was seemingly doing the opposite of what I picked, and only later did I realize that my click wasn’t actually registering unless I moved the mouse, paused it for a second, then clicked (I’ve never had any issues registering clicks in any other programs or games, so it’s not my mouse or PC). It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth noting to avoid the frustration.
I Saw Black Clouds gets credit from me for attempting to tackle serious subject matter in an interesting way, but the execution just doesn’t rise to meet the ideas. I have some issues with the way the narrative plays out towards the end, but the more damning issues are technical ones. When the game does hit its stride, it’s still undermined by poor flow and scene stitching, which stayed as consistent issues from start to finish. There aren’t a ton of FMV games out there, so I still think you’ll enjoy your time here if you’ve already run through the other heavy hitters in the genre enough times, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there’s a lot more potential here than actually comes to fruition.
The plot takes some unexpected turns, the acting is generally good, there are some cool filming locales, and the game does get quite tense
The scene transitions are frustratingly jumpy, the audio isn’t particularly consistent, and the last act of the narrative doesn’t quite play out as well I think it sounds on paper.