Scottish studio No Code’s latest release, Observation features a complex and twisting narrative that is unfortunately pulled down by a lack of polish, frustrating gameplay segments, and curious design choices that fail to deliver upon the intrigue that its unique premise promises.
To be as reductive as possible, the premise of which I speak is the unique view through which you experience the ‘world’, or perhaps I should say ‘space‘ of Observation.
Observation is a sci-fi thriller in which the player is placed in direct control of the Artificial Intelligence system that oversees the crew aboard the multi-national space station aptly named Observation, a station currently in orbit of Earth. The game throws you into the view of Systems Administration and Maintenance (or SAM for short) with little pomp and circumstance and tasks you with finding out what has happened to the members of your crew following a strange cosmic event which I won’t spoil here.
Needless to say, it’s instantly intriguing and the game does a really stellar (pun not intended) job of making you feel like a subordinate AI presence without access to a body, listlessly moving between rooms to help one Dr. Emma Fisher locate her more sentient compatriots.
It’s a view through which I’m not used to looking and to its strength this is probably the best thing about Observation; that initial realization that you are a subservient visitor in this world is truly special and it’s not a shock that I’m used to feeling in a lot of modern games. You would think that this would distance you from the experience of Observation but on the contrary, I found that I did begin to feel a sense of duty; a sort of need to carry out the tasks set before me in order to ultimately save the crew that I was tirelessly surveying.
The success of making you feel this way is really due in great part to the writing which continues to deliver devastating blow after devastating blow which really helped to drive me forward in solving a mystery that dips more than a toe into the realm of cosmic horror.
The basic gameplay of Observation is simple. It’s a sci-fi puzzler through and through, one in which you have to be attentive to the spaces around you and the clues you are given in order to succeed. Upon the game’s introduction your initial abilities are fairly limited, only able to move around through a set of camera feeds a la Five Nights at Freddy’s, however you are eventually given access to other electronically controlled spheres which afford you greater mobility and allow you to zoom around the ship in zero gravity and its at this point that the game really started to lose me. Literally.
To be as transparent as possible, moving around in Observation is simply not enjoyable for the majority of the time. Though jumping between cameras to remotely hack into objects works, it’s once you’re given access to the aforementioned gravity spheres that the game goes pear-shaped. Flatly, these are difficult to control and frequently disorienting, I spent the majority of these sections playing around with the sensitivity settings to feel what I hoped would pass for comfortable, the results? I was either slowly hauling my camera through treacle or I felt actively nauseous as I spun around the station like someone had let go of a party balloon.
This is a huge shame as the majority of the puzzles here are very engaging and truly respect the intelligence of the player, forcing you to sift through datasets and images that really sell this idea of you working as an artificial consciousness sifting through reams of information. It’s just that getting to these moments become fewer and further between as you progress. There’s a really fantastic moment fairly early in the game in which you are charged with going on your first spacewalk. The feeling of entering the black void of space in this fragile little box view for the first time really does feel overwhelming in both its beauty and its terror, it’s like looking beneath you when you’re in the sea and you can’t see anything below you. It’s a fantastic moment that’s almost immediately squandered as you’re forced to find a pretty nebulous panel on the exterior of a space station in which nothing really stands out.
Additionally, you don’t really have much scope to interact with the station around you, other than from a few choice collectibles and the puzzle solutions themselves. It works against the excellent narrative in a lot of moments and it feels like a really wasted opportunity that there isn’t some greater environmental storytelling going on here, other than changes in language here and there as you explore the different towers of the space station and the respective bodies that had at one point inhabited them.
This speaks to the other main problem I had with Observation, that being its fundamental lack of polish. This isn’t reserved to the fairly by the numbers level design at points but actual game-breaking moments where I was unable to continue due to things happening outside of my control.
There were several instances during my time with the game in which I had to exit to the main menu and jump back into the game because a key cutscene hadn’t triggered or a vital electronic device couldn’t be accessed and it would just leave me frustrated, I had this overwhelming desire to finish the game and to uncover the mystery but a simultaneous (and might I add stronger) desire to put my fist through my TV.
I also experienced one full game crash during the final cutscene and once I loaded my game back up I was greeted with a screen that I’d seen ten minutes prior and I got to experience all of the poorly controlled gameplay that I’d come to expect all over again. It was frustrating and it did nothing to placate the anger that I’d felt as I watched Observation squander its initial potential.
I want to extend an olive branch here as Observation is by no means a bad game if you’re interested in stories like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the like, I’m sure that there’s enough here that you’ll truly want to engage with it. It tells an interesting and winding narrative that during its course provides some excellent puzzles and moments of intrigue that pull you through its often messy and often unpolished design. However, it seems fitting that you play as a subordinate artificial consciousness in Observation as, at times, that’s who it feels like it’s been designed by.