Analyzing an FMV Psychological Thriller: I Saw Black Clouds

The game I Saw Black Clouds is described by its publisher as an “interactive psychological thriller with supernatural elements and branching storylines.” The publisher of this FMV game, Wales Interactive, is also known for such titles as The Shapeshifting Detective, Five Dates and The Bunker. The developer of the game is the British independent film and video game studio Ghost Dog Films, which is run by the writer and director Iain Ross-McNamee and producer Amanda Murray. This game is the studio’s third project. The title is rated M for mature audiences. At the very start of the game, there is a warning that states that certain viewers could find some of the scenes disturbing, and also that it is not suitable for children due to the game’s portrayals of suicide and violence.

Albert Einstein is noted for saying, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” People have their own unique perceptions of how they interpret and process reality based on a wide range of variables including (just to name a few) their prior knowledge, emotions, self-interest and past experiences. I Saw Black Clouds explores this concept in depth with the protagonist of the game, Kristina.

In an interview with the writer and director of the game included on Wales Interactive’s website, Ross-McNamee explained the importance of perception to this project when he stated, “It’s really interesting what trauma and guilt can do to us and how it can alter our perspective.” He also noted regarding the game, “I love the idea of blurring lines between fantasy and reality and how characters manifest that in the story. Guilt is a powerful emotion, and the twisted pathways our minds can take on the journey to finding some kind of resolution is at the very heart of the game.”

In this dark and spinning tale, it begins with Kristina returning to her hometown for the funeral of her friend Emily who has allegedly died by suicide. Kristina is very skillfully played by the actress Nicole O’Neill, known for her work in Red Sparrow and Penny Dreadful. Kristina and her longtime friend, Charlotte, attend the funeral at a local church. The game play for the player begins at this point as Charlotte quietly speaks with Kristina about Emily during the service. This game contains choices for the player to make for Kristina in how she acts, how she relates to other characters and how she interacts with her environments. Usually, when she is speaking to another character, the player is provided with two or more choices for answers that Kristina will act upon. The player is given a specific amount of time to make a choice. If you would like to have the game pause when it is time to make any decisions, you can choose to use the Streamer Mode option in the Settings menu for game play. This game doesn’t contain any puzzles, and has only selections for Kristina’s comments or for actions that can be completed if chosen.

Every choice (moral or otherwise) that you make as the player in this game, and how you have Kristina relate to the other characters will have a direct impact upon what storylines, scenes and resolutions you are presented with in this thriller. Each decision made influences the storyline to the point that a different path of events can be revealed while playing the title multiple times. Pressing S during game play on Steam brings up the Statistics Screen and pauses the game. On this screen, the player is presented with stats in both percentage and physical bar form. This information monitors how your choices for Kristina are influencing the way the tale unfolds in the Story section, rates the status of her relationship with two specific characters in the Relationships section, and tracks five personality traits including honesty, strength, morality, tact and introspections in the Character section. After playing through the game once, players can use the Tab key to skip through scenes they’ve already encountered if they’d like to do so.

Kristina and Charlotte attend the gathering after the funeral service. They see Emily’s mother and wonder aloud if she blames them for her death (which you will decide for Kristina). When the ladies speak to Emily’s bereaved mother, she asks Kristina if she’d go to Emily’s place to retrieve a pendant that is a family heirloom. Her mother explains that she could not bear to go there (since this is where Emily’s body was found). Kristina readily agrees to do this for her.

The next scene has Kristina arriving at Emily’s residence in order to try and retrieve the promised pendant. Kristina apprehensively climbs the stairs to Emily’s room. She pauses as she goes to open the bedroom door. She does a doubletake as she notices nearby in the hallway the closed door of the linen closet (where Emily had been found). She takes a beat to compose herself and steps into the bedroom. Once she is in Emily’s bedroom, you as the player must decide if Kristina is going to get the pendant for Emily’s Mom, or if she is going to get out of there as quickly as possible without retrieving the promised jewelry. This is where strange and spooky happenings begin to occur in the game.

Once Kristina heads to the door, (without giving away too much) something literally catches her full attention, and she finds Emily’s hidden journal. She begins to read the first entry and learns about how Emily had been seeing a counselor, and that she was worried about losing her job at the school she worked at. She speaks of shadows following her and the feeling that she is in danger. She mentions how she had been pretending to be fine around people, but when she closed her eyes she could see black clouds around herself. Having read the first passage, Kristina decides she’s more than ready to leave and takes the book so she can further investigate it and the events that led to Emily’s curious passing more away from this unsettling place. As she rushes out of the bedroom, she finds the door of the linen closet has creepily opened itself (as no one else is in the house). She rushes down the stairs and makes her escape.

I won’t reveal too much of the plot beyond this due to the fact that this is the point in the game where you are going to begin to experience some forks in the road that could lead you to a somewhat different journey than someone else that’s played I Saw Black Clouds, or that you yourself might encounter in your future playthroughs of the game. Your choices from the start of the game for Kristina have been laying out the groundwork for the pathway of the storyline you are about to experience. And your decisions as you play will continue to steer the direction as to what scenes and events will unfold for Kristina (and yourself) to experience. Depending on your selections throughout this title, you might get a terror-filled narrative served as a capable ghost story, or a more corporeal horrifying tale of murders and other dark deeds. Remember that Statistics Screen that was described earlier? It has an important role, and may be a much bigger guidepost for players in this game than you may have initially realized. After your first full playthrough, you’ll have a better understanding of what exactly is meant by this.

I will admit after my first playthrough that I was left a bit confused as to how Kristina got from the point at the beginning of this tale to where she ended up at the end of the story. There was quite a big twist of events that left my mind a bit blown at the end. But after I played through again, more scenes had been revealed and the events of the story changed leading to things making more sense with gaining new pieces to fill in this mysterious puzzle. During the second time I played, I realized how important the stats information is on the direction of the revealed events in each playthrough. This is a psychological thriller, and you and Kristina are working through her choices, emotions, challenges and trauma together. You are seeking to find the truth. Each playthrough will reveal more and more clues (and scenes) as to what is really going on in this thriller.

I Saw Black Clouds has four different possible endings. After completing the game each time, the title provides the player with a post-game summary. There are a total of 569 scenes that can be revealed throughout your multiple game plays, and the game keeps track of how many you’ve revealed at the conclusion of each of your complete playthroughs. The title also keeps track of the number of decisions that you make in each completed game. There are 15 global achievements that can be unlocked as you play. When you earn the achievement, the game provides you with the percentage of other players that have earned that particular award. After you finish playing, you are also given a final summary of all the elements listed in the Statistics Screen.

I Saw Black Clouds has a great cast. As mentioned earlier, Nicole O’Neill does a wonderful job in her challenging role as Kristina. I also thought Larry Rew (known for Crucible of the Vampire and Avatar) in his role as Alexander (in all of his various incarnations) did an outstanding job. And Richard Oliver (known for Justice and Crucible of the Vampire) gave a fantastic performance as Reverend Peter who provides in his scenes a haven of solace, calm and counsel for Kristina from her ever growing sea of turmoil.

This game does a good job of building suspense in its offering of eerie atmospheres. The music in this title wonderfully compliments the game play and clues you in that some kind of supernatural, suspenseful or horrific event is about to happen. If you enjoy playing games that leave you on the edge of your seat and ones that provide moments of terror, this is a game for you. I liked how symbolism was used in the game with the clouds. Blue skies and fair weather clouds seem to appear when things are less complicated for Kristina. The more secrets, strange occurrences and troubles that are unveiled for her, the cloudier the skies in the game appear.

I Saw Black Clouds is not all sunshine. There are some issues at times in the game with the choices you are provided in that they are not really impacting the story during those occasions. To give a vague example, there was a time when I adamantly did not want Kristina to do something and was given the choice to say no, but she went ahead and said something to the effect of I dunno and carried on with the opposite action of what I’d chosen. This is pretty frustrating in game play. The same happens also a couple of times when choosing for her to travel in a specific direction, and the game ends up taking her down a predetermined path anyway. I understand that the events in the story may require Kristina to act a certain way because of a plot point, but in those scenes players shouldn’t be offered choices to make. It should be just shown as an noninteractive cutscene.

Chances are, if you only play this game once, you are going to be left with a lot of confusion and questions. Once I played beyond the first playthrough, I thought the evolving plot of Kristina’s story was very fascinating. This game is definitely meant to be replayed in order to find a resolution for Kristina’s story and to acquire all the pieces needed to complete this intriguing puzzle. The focus of I Saw Black Clouds is not solely on it being a horror title. It’s also a psychological thriller and a mystery that takes some investigation, patience and replay, but I Saw Black Clouds is definitely worth playing.

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