Become the ghost in the machine with Observation
A BIT LIKE 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, BUT FROM HAL’S PERSPECTIVE
“HOW YOU REACT AND THE SPEED AT WHICH YOU WORK WILL BE NOTICED BY DR FISHER IN THE GAME”
FORMAT: PS4, PC | PUBLISHER: DEVOLVER DIGITAL | DEVELOPER: NO CODE | RELEASE: Q2 2019 | PLAYERS: 1
It’s good to see that the little flurry of space station and abandoned astronaut games from a year or so ago hasn’t dampened the attraction of the setting for others, because Observation is looking like a fascinating new twist on the classic thriller format. Where Adr1ft and Tacoma placed you in the shoes of an astronaut trying to either uncover a mystery or survive a recent disaster, Observation might be best described as the game where you play as the space station itself.
It’s a fun concept, and that’s not terribly surprising coming from No Code, the developer who previously delivered Stories Untold. Where that horror game looked to subvert classic text adventure games and give them a modern spin (to great effect), Observation seems to be doing something similar with the point and click genre, albeit in such a unique way that the origins of the experience are rather nicely disguised.
You’ll play as S.A.M. (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI operating system of the space station Observation after some sort of event has left one of your crew, Dr Emma Fisher, stuck in an airlock and the rest apparently missing. As you reboot yourself, you gradually need to use the cameras around the station to regain access to different controls and help Dr Fisher to not only get systems back online across the vessel, but also work out what happened, where the rest of the crew is and ultimately where exactly the station is.
Much like Stories Untold, the use of setting and the viewpoint of the protagonist gives you a completely new and more immersive perspective on events, even though it might appear that you’re at an even greater remove. While in the horror game you played text adventures within a virtual space that saw that environment react to your in-game decisions (which was pretty spooky), as the AI of the ship you are not the one in peril, but you are responsible for this astronaut’s well-being, and since you’re a person, not a computer, how you react and the speed at which you work will be noticed by Dr Fisher in the game.
We love this idea of placing us as players into these odd roles that make the characters distrust our motivations. While our mission may be to save Dr Fisher, we can choose to explore the outside of the ship to look for clues about the events that lead up to our involvement, and we can occupy a floating drone inside the ship to move more freely and catch blind spots in the camera coverage. In the meantime, every system we need to control means solving a little puzzle, as if we’re having to remember how to be a computer again and interface with all of the systems. This will involve looking over wire-frame renderings of the station for damage reports, defragmenting memory to try to find lost data and lots of other interactions with rather retro-looking computer interfaces. All the while, we’ll also be getting strange interference and messages on our HUD telling us to ‘Bring Her’. What could it all mean?
Given the team’s background in horror, we wouldn’t be surprised if all of this takes a pretty dark turn as the plot unfolds, perhaps even revealing some culpability on the part of S.A.M. or Dr Fisher, but for the moment this is looking like an incredibly tense, smart and really gorgeously rendered space station thriller, easily the equal of the also pretty good-looking Adr1ft from a couple of years back. It has some of the lingering dread of Tacoma and some equally excellent voice acting from what we’ve seen so far, which is also a good place to start. This type of location is always an intriguing one, the 'lost in space' concept well-trodden, but ripe for twisting, and the perspective that’s been chosen seems like a great way of exploring some classic genre conventions from a new angle.
We’ll admit that when Stories Untold was about to come out we nearly wrote it off as a Stranger Things coat-tail jumper, but having been thoroughly schooled by the final release, we will not be making that same mistake again. No Code is a developer to watch in terms of creating genuinely new and exciting gaming experiences, and you should be prepared to jump on board next spring.
Above: There are tons of cameras all around the space station Observation, which you can switch between at will. Many are on the inside of the station so that you can access systems and check in on rooms, while others are on the exterior. right: Observation is clearly a creepy game, but that seems inherent to the scenario with only one human character seemingly in the world and all sorts of strange noises and happenings on the station.
right: As the AI, you experience what it’s like to manually interact with all of the digital systems that the crew simply request and see the results of. It’s an interesting twist on point and click puzzlesolving mechanics.