Observation (2019/2020)

The chances of me nabbing a PS5 any time soon are fairly nonexistent, so despite the fact I have a chunk of previous-gen games floating around in my to-finish pile, I’ve been working through some of the titles included in Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription. (It came with my console, and fuck it, why not? It meant I didn’t have to buy that Blair Witch game.)

Thankfully, my most recent dip into the pool-o-games features enough creepy narrative to keep me entertained for its relatively short runtime. Yeah, compared to a Yakuza game, everything is relatively short, but still: for about 10–12 hours, Observation kept me pretty intrigued.

Set on an international space station (not the International Space Station), the game begins after things have gone wrong in a vaguely spectacular way. There’s A Situation, and one of the station’s denizens – Dr Emma Fisher – is after your assistance.

You take the role of SAM, the Systems Administration & Maintenance computer AI. Essentially, you’re HAL 9000, though your capabilities have been slightly curtailed by whatever the fuck has gone on. Did you cause what happened? Is this extraterrestrial fuckery? Has someone developed a case of cosmic cabin fever?

Leave this place. You are in great danger. The one you call Milhouse… is gone.

It’s time to find out.

The game is essentially a walking simulator – sorry, floating simulator – with some additional mechanics. As the brains of the space station, a fair whack of the game is devoted to surveillance, though a series of networked static video cameras and through a floating ball robot type device.

The atmosphere is spot-on. For all the mystery – and there are some music-in-Close Encounters, monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey vibes – the space station feels real. The wonky video, sourced from period-appropriate cameras (we’re assuming this thing’s been up there a while) pans across the sort of settings you’ve seen in plenty of NASA videos. As with Alien, space here isn’t gleaming and clean: it’s aged and held together with gaffer tape. It’s messy, a floating share-house where several humans attempt to cohabitate without ceding all their privacy (or their sanity). The operating system you use to poke about the place – and to solve problems – is an equal blend of Windows 3.1 and Movie OS; something that feels utilitarian, commonplace and completely believable, at least until certain bits are locked out until their allotted time in the story’s spotlight turns up.

Yeah, that’s no moon. (Or Earth, for that matter.)

Most of the puzzles in the game rely on the station’s operating system to function. There’s booster adjustments, comms setups and random security queries which require addressing, and while they’re not all the most elegant, they feel germane to the setup, and don’t take the player too far out of things.

Piece of detachable cake.

The story is linear, but there’s enough quality sci-fi meat to keep you interested for the relatively short runtime of the game. No Code have handled the “show, don’t tell” thing pretty well, though it must be admitted that the setting – including the claustrophobic confusion of weightless navigation – does a lot of the legwork here. There’s some truly stunning cinematography, though, and the weirder moments (you’ll know them when they appear) full of recurrent hexagons and planetary vastness, are definitely creepy.

As in other games, a lot of supplementary story is conveyed though voice recordings, data files or documents found strewn around the place. Finding which document isn’t just background colour is sometimes a bit involved, but the operating system’s ability to link found items and produce more information is helpful. During my playthrough I didn’t find everything there was to find, and I’m tempted to give it another go to see if there’s more light to be shed.

Sound design and music are also topnotch. NIN’s Robin Finck contributed to the tunes heard throughout (including a piece that, to my ears, sounds like a tip of the hat to The Cure’s ‘Cold’) but the accompaniment seeps in rather than erupts. Everything is low key, lots of “what the fuck was that?” clunks, the sort you hear in bed at night when your house is cooling down. It’s a good soundtrack to the approaching singularity, I suspect.

There certainly are flaws with this game, but they didn’t stop me from playing. There’s occasional clipping weirdness, and the uncanny valley makes itself extremely known during some of the characters’ cutscenes. There’s a couple of OS typos. But given the vision of the game, and the story it tells in a fairly limited setting, these are easy to overlook.

If you’ve ever wanted to experience more security cam simulation in your space horror games, then this is one you should probably check out.

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