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Observation Review – Space Voyeur

Nothing quite erodes the ego like bearing witness to utter isolation. A world comprised of limited parts that you still can’t grasp firm control of. The promise of an endless frontier and the barriers that confine it. Isolation is inseparable from any grounded space story, but Observation centers in on it to mine palpable horror. The minimalism of your surroundings permeates every corner of the game’s design, informing both its small-scale revolutions and missed opportunities, but making for a truly cohesive vision. Atmosphere largely reigns supreme, but it is carefully molded by the nebulous character dynamics that orbit around you as you tinker with the dregs of futuristic tech.

 

It is in this regard that Observation sort of defies genre. It is explorative but contained by the vicinity of your labyrinthian ship. Puzzles are fairly simple, to a degree that threatens to bore, but are distinguished through and through by the interstellar technology that harbors them. Besides a mid-game chase sequence, the closest moment to the dev team’s predecessor Alien Isolation, most moments of horror are implicit, surreally sinister moments that unfurl absent canned terror. You are suspended in a cryptic void, whose mysterious forces close in on you gradually. A sinking feeling prevails throughout the entire campaign that manifests in a power struggle rarely approximated in horror games.

 

What distinguishes Observation first and foremost is the voyeuristic perspective players fill. Rather than playing as any of the six astronauts aboard the Observation space station, you play as the station’s subservient AI, with the endearing name of SAM giving way to the depersonalized acronym of Systems Administration and Maintenance. From the start, your singular contact is Dr. Emma Fisher, in dire straits after a mysterious power outage severs contact with Houston and Fisher’s five crew members. Emma and your own intuitions are the only means for you to grow acquainted with your own intelligence.

Gameplay still from Observation, surveillance camera faces two astronaut NPCs head-on

It’s a parasitic relationship to say the least

The UI ranges from sparse to non-existent, hacking away any notion of health or radar in favor of an experience that naturally differs from earthbound computing but approximates its own sense of realism. Objectives pronounce themselves in sparse white text that pulsates across the screen (a rather common type of formatting this year), but otherwise, mechanics are entirely elaborated on through a series of efficient interfaces. For much of the experience, you navigate the station through remote cameras, your field of view compressed but also organized enough to keep pixel-hunting at a minimum.

 

The cutscenes that operate outside of this first-person POV are a bit of disappointment as a result, prone to hindering immersion and lacking any meaningful dramatic heft in return. On PS4, the transitions also tend to cause a momentary lockup before booting you back into gameplay, counteracting the “one-take” feeling the gameplay so reliably simulates. Nonetheless, volleying between the ongoing feeds during gameplay facilitates an authentic feeling of micromanagement, keeping you attentive despite things not being especially urgent much of the time. Observation doles out its high octane moments methodically, but even though few of the maintenance obligations carry a time limit, it does a decent job of keeping a fire lit beneath you and tensions fairly high.

 

Your mileage will vary, however, when it comes to the maintenance puzzles themselves. The ingenuity they require is closer to that of space-age work training than the high-concept puzzles that exist purely to elude you. Beyond a fair amount of pattern memorization and data finding, instructions are doled out so comprehensively that progression can be a bit too steady. Observation covers all bases with regards to a variety of interfaces that counteract everything that can go wrong in space, but the core routines mostly just test your cognitive ability to navigate screens. It all feels authentic but it never really challenges.

Gameplay still from Observation, displays puzzle-solving process that detatches clamps from the station

Image courtesy of Playstation

To its credit, the visual design generally compensates for this. Undeniable effort has been put into evocative lighting that keeps your environment visible but never tips its hand into downplaying its spacey aura. A recurring pattern input sequence is paired with such hallucinatory visuals that it transcends the simple task that is asked of you. This “Star Gate” adjacent sequence is a persistent example of the uncanny visual quirks that distinguish Observation in its shining moments. It also for better or worse does a striking job of diverting your attention away from the patterns you must memorize, making repeat attempts a necessary concession. Failure is effectively not a factor allowing Observation to seer into players as a sensory experience instead of testing gameplay skills. The puzzles that are present feel more than just obligatory but don’t necessarily bear the brunt of exciting players.

 

The most involved sequences of gameplay do give you a degree of free movement in exchange for a more established perspective. Before the game even meets its halfway point, SAM is afforded a spherical probe that players can control from first-person perspective floating throughout (and occasionally outside) the station. Your movement is fairly floaty but in a way that acquaints itself with the setting instead of being distracting. As you bob your way through the Observation station, you have a 360-degree control of your sphere’s angle, giving the geometry of your environment more clarity that the otherwise binary movement would neglect. The mid-game chase sequence mostly goes off without a hitch and your interactions with the station’s tech hardly differ when inside the sphere.

 

Beyond the rudimentary movement offered from within the probe, Observation’s gameplay is mostly cursor-oriented which inherently limits the functions of your input but also avoids any of the tedium that could have stemmed from a more complex control scheme. There is not a single moment in the campaign that proves frustrating, even if the trade-off is puzzles that are somewhat novel but also fairly basic. Your investment into Observation will primarily stem from your attachment to its narrative, one that alternates between being a referential sum of its space escape predecessors and spinning its own heady tale that mutually confounds and intrigues.

Gameplay still from Observation, the player's movable sphere travelling out towards Saturn

It’s all a bit humbling

There is no doubt that the innovation present in Observation stems from where the players are positioned. Speaking in 2001 terms, you basically play as HAL 9000, the malevolent space computer with the fates of others in your non-existent palm. You witness horrors and enact them alike, but you as the player are inseparable from the human suffering your astronaut NPCs sustain. Present reality is malleable through factors in and out of your control, and though matters never overcook into visceral scares, there is a lingering dissonance between your ordinary surroundings and underlying fears. What is communicated to players does not substantially differ from the altered realities that manifest in Event Horizon or Interstellar, but they unearth through the player’s advancement making the divide between your power over others and the power you lack an internalized consideration.

 

The characters in Observation don’t really establish brazen personalities beyond their profession (though cursory information about the relationships between them can be found) but the voice acting meets a fairly professional bar, articulating numerous degrees of discomfort as the strange gets stranger. The game is also enlivened by some musical contributions from Nine Inch Nails’ Robin Finck which largely adhere to the sweeping tropes of space-informed sonic compositions, but are no less enthralling for it.

 

Observation is the sort of title that largely operates outside of conventional criticism. It mostly excels in the perceived superficial components of game design but pushes them to the forefront to make for a rock-solid (if not especially unparalleled) narrative experience. I was largely just underwhelmed by the ease with which its supplementary puzzles could be cracked, which never quite confounded me like its story regularly does. It is also heavily indebted to most every landmark “lost in space” film that has remained a part of the zeitgeist (and also Life) but always succeeds as a baseline cinematic experience that capitalizes on a unique viewer perspective. Observation is nothing if not proof that developers No Code fully understand the fearsome qualities of space travel, I await their next project hoping their knack for unique setups carries over to the full product.

This review of Observation is based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.

 

  • 6.5/10
    - 6.5/10
6.5/10

Summary

Observation does not fully realize the prospect of its unique setup, but it saddles it with a solid narrative and capable (if somewhat uninvolved) gameplay for a contemplative interstellar experience that will no doubt satisfy genre fans.

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