Observation is a narrative-driven game with some light traversal and logic puzzle elements. A relatively short game with a very cinematic approach to how it tells its story, which I found compelling as hell. Unable to put it down in the evening and morning that it took me to see it all the way through to the end.
Coming from No Code and Devolver Digital. Observation takes elements from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien as well as a ton of other well-known science fiction stories to tell a familiar story from a totally different perspective. The rogue Artificial Intelligence is a heavily used story trope, the archetypal example being the HAL 9000 from 2001. Observation takes this idea and flips it on its head, putting the player in the position of the ship AI.
As the game begins, some disaster has obviously befallen the Observation and her crew. Alerts blare and fires burn throughout the large space station. The player takes control of Ship Administration and Maintenance called Sam by everyone on board. In the beginning, it seems like the only survivor is Dr. Emma Fisher, who works with Sam to restore the Observation to a stable condition and discover what the hell happened to them.
All of the gameplay comes in the form of a series of desktop menus and camera feeds. Through the tasks given by the Emma, the player interacts with the environment by taking control of the various security cameras throughout the ship and wirelessly linking to the parts of the ship to complete the tasks. As well as gathering information to piece together the events that let everyone to this point.
Much of the gameplay comes from this. Requiring the player to find the modules they need to interact with and then solve the small logic puzzles involved with using these parts of the ship. These range from finding passcodes written down in the environment to Simon-style memorisation puzzles and hitting combinations of buttons with the correct timing.
The gameplay element of the game is exceedingly simple and rarely difficult to execute. The most challenging aspect of the game for me ended up being actually finding out which aspects of the world were important and needed to be interacted with. The interior of the Observation obviously uses the International Space Station as a source of reference when it comes to how it’s been designed.
And as a result it’s cluttered as hell, with stuff strapped to all four walls, because remember, no gravity. And as the game processes and things become even more chaotic, it becomes increasingly difficult to find the parts of the world you need to interact with to progress, which can be kind of frustrating.
For the most part, all of this is secondary to the narrative being told. Pretty early on in the game, it’s revealed that the ship, which was once in low earth orbit, is now in orbit around Saturn, with a large hexagonal shaped storm thundering below them. When questioned, Sam claims he brought them there, but has no memory of doing so, or why.
2001 is obviously as very powerful inspiration throughout this game. Playing as Sam while also knowing something beyond understanding is taking place, and that it’s very possible that you’re the bad guy in this story, but just don’t remember is super compelling. Elements form a ton of different science fiction stories such as Arrival, Annihilation, The Cloverfield Paradox, Sunshine and the Alien series can be seen throughout the game, and all of it comes together to play with your expectations of where the story is going.
Wanting to know what was going on and what role this floating, gooey Hexagon that occasionally invades the ship is the main thing that drove me throughout the game. While the light puzzle gameplay was satisfying, in the same way putting a jigsaw can be or building a piece of furniture might feel, it was just there to extend the length of the very cinematic experience the game ended up being.
Because that’s what this game is at the end of the day, it’s much more interactive movie than video game. Which isn’t a problem for me, but I know some people are put off by these kind of games and wonder why they don’t just watch a movie instead.
I don’t want to give away much more, as the events of the story are the very reason to play it. It’s a short and sweet experience that took me about 7 hours to see all the way through, most of which seemed around me getting lost during the segments of the game where you take control of the small sphere that you can freely control throughout the interior and exterior of the Observation during specific segments of the game.
If you like stories about alien intelligence that are beyond our understanding, like in Contact or The Abyss as well as outer space horror, there’s a ton of stuff in here that you’ll enjoy. It’s the equivalent of a book you can’t down or a series you binge through in the space of a day. I really liked Observation as a quick and compelling story and if you can get a hold of it and like the many movies I’ve listed throughout this post then I’d recommend giving it a look.
Observation was released in May of 2019 for PC and PlayStation 4. More recently, it arrived on Xbox One through Game Pass, which is where I played it.