Every so often a game comes along that does something so unique and different that I can’t help but to find myself totally wowed by it. Admittedly, it’s not something that happens all the time, especially since a lot of AAA developers tend to play it safe these days. However, it is something that developer No Code have managed to do twice: first with the brilliant Stories Untold back in 2017 and now with their new release, the sci-fi adventure Observation. Believe me, it really is something special.
Observation takes place on a space station with the same name, with the player taking on the role of an AI named SAM (short for ‘Systems, Administration and Maintenance’). The station’s role was to orbit around the planet Earth and observe, but things so wrong and you awaken with your memory wiped and no clue as to what’s going on. With just one passenger seemingly safe (the scientist Emma Fisher), you have to work together to try and find the other crew members, find out what went wrong, and somehow make your way home and back to safety.
I really don’t want to talk too much about the game’s plot. Not only is it the driving force behind the experience, but it takes so many twists and turns that to spoil them here would ruin the experience for any potential players. Not only that, but a lot of it is open to interpretation too – I spoke to a friend who played the game and we both had totally different impressions on what the outcome of Observation meant, but we were both left satisfied by the conclusion. It really is something special, but it’d be unfair for me to mention why.
One thing I will say though is that there’ll be a real drive in place for you to want to help Emma. Playing the role of an AI makes things a lot more interesting, especially since you don’t feel human emotions and are instead there to help someone else through their problems. It almost detaches you from your role as the (literally) lifeless protagonist in the game, but helps you feel a stronger sense of empathy towards Emma. It’s something we’ve seen games try to do in the past, but I’ve never seen it work as effectively as Observation managed.
Seeing as you take on the role of an on-board AI in Observation, I’m sure you can imagine the gameplay itself isn’t necessarily conventional. Fortunately, developer No Code proved they’re masters of unconventional in their previous release Stories Untold, with the tasks you’ll perform here following a similar setup.
The best way to describe your actions in the game would be as ‘problem solving’. You’ll tinker with the on-board systems in order to achieve your goals, be it adjusting clamps to open up new areas of the station, finding the co-ordinates for different locations, or adjusting the airlock to open up the path to the station’s exterior. Now these might sound like menial and simple tasks, but the way they’re presented in Observation is ingenious – they feel conventional in design thanks to the fact that you’re essentially just pressing buttons, but they’re actually puzzles that often require quick thinking to solve. There aren’t any real fail states in place so there isn’t masses of pressure placed upon you, but the fact that you’ll hear Emma’s desperate pleas as you look to work through each problem will give you that added drive to get a move on. It’s great stuff.
Of course, seeing as you’re an AI you can’t exactly walk (or I guess float) around the station. Fortunately, SAM has multiple ways of getting around: you can either use the many security cameras that are littered around to interact with objects in a room or you can use a special camera-robot Sphere (that’s the technical term) to fly around. The cameras are easy to access and just require selection on a huge map of the station to use – sure, they’re a bit slow to move when you’re accessing them, but it’s easy to zoom into objects to interact with them. The Sphere on the other hand is only available at certain times, though it does give you the chance to take a closer look around the station which can make it easier to find new things to interact with. There are countless documents to read and laptops to hack in order to find out new bits of information about the story, and the best opportunity to do so is when using a Sphere.
Whilst the combination of puzzle-solving and the story progressing proves mighty satisfying throughout, Observation does have a few stumbling blocks that caused minor irritations. One was with the controls when using the Spheres, with it often proving difficult to get around some of the more confined areas. It is something you get used to, but with the Sphere itself able to flip around 360-degrees when moving it’s easy to find yourself going all over the place. It also didn’t help that the game’s environment can be hard to differentiate at times, which can leave you going around in circles. When using the cameras and manually choosing a room to explore it’s not a problem, but when your destination isn’t made clear to you and you’ve got to look around yourself it can be easy to find yourself totally perplexed. They’re both minor problems in the grand scheme of things, but their presence was enough to annoy me on a few occasions.
Presentation-wise, Observation looks great, with the station itself being believable in design and not lending itself to over the top sci-fi tropes for the sake of it. When using the cameras I’d have easily believed I was looking at a real-life space station, which really goes to show how good a job the team at No Code have done in its environmental design. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t some sci-fi aspects in place with the visuals though, with some of the sights you see outside of the station really proving to be quite a spectacle. Add to that some brilliant voice acting and a subtle yet eerie soundtrack, and you’ll quickly find yourself impressed with Observation’s overall cinematic presentation.
With its blend of intense storytelling and clever puzzle-solving, players will have a thoroughly entertaining time working through Observation’s five-hour adventure. You’ll constantly be left guessing at what’s going on thanks to each twist and turn that the narrative takes, whilst the puzzles themselves are cleverly designed to feel like they’re meant to be a part of the space station itself. All aspects of the game are just believable in design, even if the story itself can take some unusual turns…
The sometimes finicky controls and a lack of direction can make for some frustrating moments, but they’re minor flaws in what is otherwise a remarkable experience. I have no doubt that Observation won’t be for everyone, but anyone who appreciates a video game that does something brilliantly unique will want to check it out.
Developer: No Code
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platform(s): PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PC