Leading up to its release, trailers for Observation - from developer No Code and published by Devolver Digital - portrayed a new space-horror story that science fiction fans were eager to get their hands on. The visuals and overall aesthetics of the game very closely resembled that of Alien: Isolation, which makes sense considering that many people involved with Alien: Isolation were also involved with the development of Observation, including character artists Jack Perry and Ranulf Busby, concept artist Stefano Tsai, writer Will Porter, and the voice-over talents of Anthony Howell and Kezia Burrows; Keiza having provided the voice for Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation. However, those expecting a survival-horror type of game will be sorely mistaken (like I admittedly was). While there are certainly elements of the survival-horror genre, Observation is above all else a tense adventure-puzzle game and sci-fi thriller that fans of either genre will be sure to enjoy.
Players assume the role of the space station itself. Sam, which is short for System & Maintenance Administration (SAM), is an artificial intelligence module that can control essentially every part of a multinational space station. Observation kicks off with the space station spinning out of control in the dead of space, with Dr. Emma Fisher trying to steady its course and getting the station back online while trying to locate her missing crew members with Sam’s help. Sam utilizes the station's cameras, as well as a wireless, mobile camera called a Connection Sphere to interact with the ship's electronics and regain access to the rest of the massive station. Unfortunately, it becomes abundantly clear that something even more terrifying is at play, with a menacing entity taking brief control of Sam’s system and commanding it to “Bring Her,” resulting in the station suddenly being transported from Earth’s orbit to that of Saturn’s.
Observation’s defining feature is no doubt its story. The tone of the game is set immediately through ominous music and eerie sound effects, which continue as the story progresses. Although effective jump scares do occur, they are relatively subtle - and that’s ok. Observation’s narrative maintains a satisfying level of dread and tension as players make their way through the dark, claustrophobic arms of the space station. Cutscenes are well-paced, as are the interactions with the hostile entity. The game’s final acts only elevate its story. The second you think you’ve heard this story before and know how it will end, the game pulls you into another direction until you reach its final chilling moments.
One of the goals of Observation’s director, Jon McKellan, was to flip the story’s point of view from humans to that of other familiar horror and sci-fi tropes, such as Aliens’ Xenomorphs or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the latter of which was no doubt a clear inspiration for Sam. Using cameras to achieve objectives may not be new to video games, but that is exclusively how the game is played.
Using cameras to solve puzzles make up the game’s challenges, such as repairing or removing station arm connections, or adjusting number values to accept incoming messages or broadcast them out. The unknown entity also provides an interactive puzzle that requires players to match and repeat back symbols that are displayed. Most of Observation puzzles are fairly straightforward, requiring players to use common sense and varying degrees of logic. Some, though, are a bit more frustrating due to the vagueness of the instructions (and no real hints for how to achieve the objective). Overall, fans of puzzle and logic games will likely be pleased with the challenges that Observation provides.
Sam’s abilities to perform these challenges are limited to the working conditions of the space station’s other technical systems, many of which were knocked offline after the entity first interacted with the station. The cameras and mobile Connection Sphere are slow moving, but after an hour or so, the controls at least become second nature. In addition to the controls, players will also want to be sure to familiarize themselves with Sam’s in-menu HUD, which includes maps and other tools that will be vital in progressing the story forward. Possibly the most important tool at players’ disposal is the waypoint marker on the map.
On that note: get comfortable. Whether it be for a specific room of the space station, a schematic to open a hatch bay door, or a random Post-It note stuck to a wall, you’re going to be spending a lot of your time looking around. Aimlessly wandering around the labyrinth of sections in the space station can be tedious. However, this frustration can often be reduced by double-checking the objective by pressing R3, or by asking for the command to be repeated by Emma. This will generally provide the objective as well as its location, allowing you to place a waypoint on the map.
This strategy is a bit trickier when venturing outside of the station into the blackness of space. You’ll need to pay attention to keywords and locations (such as the section numbers painted on the walls) to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing and where to go (and more importantly, how to get back inside the station). It is very easy to get disoriented and lost while outside the station, especially while taking in the breathtaking (and unnerving) visuals while hovering above Saturn.
Observation isn’t for everyone. The slower-paced nature of the game is definitely something that I wasn’t expecting and had to get used to. This, however, was an easy feat thanks to how well the pace fits with the overall tone of the narrative. Fans of the sci-fi genre - especially space and time-based science fiction - will want to be sure to check out Observation for that reason alone. The story will keep you wanting to know what happens next. Coming in at a completion time of roughly eight to ten hours (and available for a surprisingly low cost of around $20), Observation is the perfect addition to any sci-fi fan’s collection.
4 out of 5 stars
A copy of Observation was purchased by The Gamer for this review. The game is available now for the PlayStation 4 and PC.