Just so we’re clear, I happen to think that 2001: A Space Odyssey is overrated. It’s got those few good bits that people actually remember, interspersed with a couple of hours of nothing happening. It’s boring and I didn’t enjoy it. It’s odd then that when Observation pitched itself as “2001: A Space Odyssey but you play as HAL 9000”, I was immediately intrigued. It just struck me as such an interesting concept, and I’m very pleased to report that it resulted in a very compelling game.
Observation is developer No Code’s follow-up to the very well received Stories Untold. Although two games might not be enough to determine a definite trend, based on the available evidence it’s pretty clear that No Code enjoy creeping people out. Their latest game sees you playing as S.A.M. (Systems, Administration & Maintenance), the on-board AI of the titular Observation space station. The game sets its stall out early, with the first 30 minutes effectively a cold open. The station is in darkness, and crew member Dr Emma Fisher is trying to contact Houston. Something has clearly gone wrong, but neither S.A.M. nor Emma seem to know what.
Although some small scrap of clarity is soon given, things only get more mysterious after the introductory credits roll. S.A.M.’s memory has been erased, the rest of the crew have seemingly vanished and few of the station’s systems work. As S.A.M., you’re able to access laptops and scan documents to try to piece together the events that have led you to this point. Audio logs scattered around fill out the backstory and give some depth to the relationships between the crew members. However, it rapidly becomes obvious that something strange is still affecting Observation and S.A.M. along with it…
The majority of the gameplay is based around puzzle-solving. S.A.M. is able to access the station’s cameras, and later a movable, floating sphere. Using these, you can access Observation’s various systems, and it’s generally up to you to establish how to operate them. In truth, most of the puzzles are pretty straightforward; however, there is plenty of variety in presentation. Perhaps the trickiest part is in finding your way around; being a floating orb in a micro-gravity environment is remarkably disorientating. There is a map and waypoint system, but there are times when that’s not available. You do get used to it over time, although there was one point in particular where I was flying around in circles for some time before I found what I needed.
The game generally looks great. The confined environments of the station mean that No Code were able to pack a lot of detail into the visuals. Observation feels like a functional, lived-in station, thanks in no small part to the design and execution of the surroundings. However, the one definite area of weakness in the presentation is the facial animations. Although the character models themselves are fine, it gets pretty rough as soon as there’s a close up of Emma talking. It’s a shame, but it’s hardly the first game to encounter this issue. If anything it’s more noticeable when compared to how good the environments look. Fortunately, the voice acting is excellent, which helps to compensate somewhat.
Once solved, the majority of the puzzles lead into the next story beat. It’s in these moments where Observation’s cinematic intent becomes clearest. The camera moves to fixed angles to best present what’s happening, and shots are framed like movie scenes. There’s a film grain effect over everything, combined with a noticeably retro-style camera flicker when S.A.M. moves between station modules. I did sometimes find it a little immersion breaking to have control seized from me like this, but it definitely helped to develop the narrative, so it’s hard to be too critical of it.
That narrative is unquestionably where Observation really shines. I said at the start of this review that Observation is a very compelling game; however, it’s first and foremost a challenging piece of science fiction. The mysteries that lie within go far beyond the game’s puzzles. As each riddle unravels, even more arcane enigmas emerge. As a whole, they raise fundamental questions about the perception of reality, human nature and the line between artificial intelligence and consciousness. That’s not to say it necessarily answers any of these questions, but that’s the whole point.
Observation is in the business of making you think, not telling you what to think. If you prefer your stories to neatly explain themselves, then this might not be the game for you. Observation is a first-person narrative told solely from S.A.M.’s perspective, and as such you’re essentially along for the ride. It doesn’t all make sense, but then given the events of the game, I don’t think it should. It’s up to you to derive meaning from what you experience. Observation’s real success is that it tells its story in such an engaging way that I was more than happy to put the effort into doing so.
It is also fantastically eerie. Observation isn’t really a horror game as such, but it is quite unnerving. As you’re never sure what’s happening or why, you’re constantly off-balance. That means you’re usually unprepared for the next twist, making each development that bit more impactful. Even when you do uncover some nugget of information that hints at a motivation or purpose, it invariably feels too late to be useful. The reason I wouldn’t criticise the narrative for being deliberately obtuse is that I feel that, if it was viewed from a different perspective, everything would make sense. That perspective would have to be vastly broader than S.A.M.’s (inconceivably vaster in fact), but there is a sense that there is order beneath the chaos, some ineffable plan…
Observation is not long (maybe 6-7 hours), but it’s one that will stay with you. It’s a game that demands a certain level of intellectual engagement and as such maybe benefits from a shorter than average runtime. Overall, an interesting, engaging, sci-fi adventure game that is as baffling as it is fascinating. Its theme music is banging too, so crank up the volume when the credits roll.
Obervation was developed by No Code and is available on the Epic Store and PS4. We reviewed the PC version.
Disclosure statement: review code for Observation was provided by Indigo Pearl. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.