In Observation, you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station representing the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your skills are limited by your absence of a physical form – for most of the game; you control the cameras scattered around the station and interact with computers or digital panels within their field of vision. You have access to the station’s map that expands over time, and you can hop between cameras all over the ship at will. This is our Observation Review.
1. Observation Review: AboutNext Section
- Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows
- Developer: No Code
- Publisher: No Code
- Genres: Adventure game, Puzzle video game
- Release Date: May 21, 2019
2. Official TrailerNext Section
3. Observation Review: GameplayNext Section
It may sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to create an immersive, creepy, and highly original story experience. The year is 2026, and you’re at the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who wakes up at the start of the race and finds herself out of touch with the rest of her crew on board.
It is immediately apparent that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in orbit, and no one answers its communication attempts. Much more to say would be to spoil elements of a plot that is best to surprise – the first big twist happens in about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say, the story of Observation slowly unfolds over the entire length of the game, with the mysteries getting more and more complicated and your sense of fear deepening as the game progresses.
Observation nails its signature lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you switch between them and the stylistic film grain and distortion across each image emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works from the past forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien – some of the technology onboard the space station feels like antiquated products from a decade long past.
This aesthetic, combined with the game’s a near environment, gives Observation the pleasant feel of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is by far the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even if you load your system menu, you are treated to some pleasant analog and retro buzzing and buzzing sound effects. You’ll experience most of the game through the slow pan and zoom cameras, a useful tool for creating a creeping sense of thrills.
However, an occasional movie is used to better capture the action at a crucial moment. It’s not about scaring or being in personal danger; again, saying too much more would spoil the game’s quick pace, but it’s a game that is incredibly effective at building more fear than overt terror. The actual gameplay is pretty straightforward for the most part.
You need to explore the ship as much as possible from your different points of view, scan every document and inspect every laptop you come across open and close hatch doors and interact with the station’s equipment. Most of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM’s interface, finding diagrams to help you manage specific programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you get.
The game does an excellent job of taking complex ideas and procedures and presenting them as simple edits. Everything from opening the airlock to securing the doors between parts of the station boils down to a few button presses; now and then you have to participate in what is essentially a timed mini-game, but for the most part, just follow the necessary instructions. The main challenge is figuring out how the different parts of the ship all work together, and reasoning through the impact of your actions and what information you can and cannot access.
At specific points, you have to control a spherical droid that can float freely around the station – and, more excitingly, outside the station. It’s a bit tedious to check for tight spots, and it’s easy to get your bearings because the concepts of up and down are relative in non-gravity environments. But it is fascinating to get away from the static cameras and float through the station, getting used to the limitations of the sphere.
Observation ensures that these sections are performed expertly, using the droid when it is necessary to make you feel more part of what is happening. It plays exceptionally well on the droid’s symbolic sense of place; it is the physical element of SAM that sells Emma’s growing friendship with him. Often what to do next and how to do it will be described very clearly, although the game’s instructions may be a bit clearer in a few sections. At one time, it seemed as if I had hit a particularly abstract puzzle.
Still, it turned out that I had encountered a glitch where a particular event was not adequately triggered, necessitating a quick reset of the checkpoint. This was tricky because the games checkpointing can be a bit strict – you keep all the information you’ve collected by scanning objects but don’t save it after significant actions, so it’s hard to know exactly what to do do it again when you leave. But it’s not too big of a problem, because I never lost more than a few minutes of progress.
Slowly discovering every system on board, inspecting every room, and unlocking more menus and commands in SAM’s user interface is an absolute treat. Observation is a visual blast, with only the odd lip-sync issue occasionally distracting from the level of polish and craft shown. Later events also perfectly enhance the inherent scary isolation of a space station.
The story is compelling and exciting until the end credits run smoothly, and the game doesn’t stop with revelations, twists, or the increasing tension of knowing that the game is building towards something wild. Observation also achieves the extremely rare achievement of containing audio logs that are both compelling and logical in its world.
4. Observation Review: ConclusionNext Section
Observation is a beautiful example of how to tell focused, self-contained science fiction stories in a game. It’s well-written and smart, nailing the sci-fi tropes and aesthetic it plays on and builds on. It’s a game that requires analysis and further thought once you are done with it, and while the game’s internal world is small, inhabiting is a real pleasure.