Observation is a chilling and enthralling space-bound horror game, allowing players to act out their best HAL 9000 impressions through a great story.
If you have ever wanted to act out a great HAL 9000 impersonation, then Observation is the place to do it. The game takes place on a space station of the same name following some kind of disaster, and tasks players with the role of station AI S.A.M. as stability is restored. Along the way, the question of exactly what is going on is slowly answered.
Observation comes from UK developer No Code. The studio struck gold with 2017's Stories Untold, a 1980s-tinged horror anthology that went everywhere from isolated research stations to text-based adventure games with a supernatural twist. Altogether, these disparate episodes merged into a compelling, character-driven narrative that ended up as one of the hidden gems of 2017.
For No Code's latest game, though, the developer has gone for something a little more straightforward from a structural perspective. Observation covers just a single story, although it still maintains No Code's trademark for esoteric moments within its narrative. A big part of this comes down to the player's role here, not as a human character but instead as a potentially malfunctioning AI.
S.A.M. acts as a useful device to put the player into an environment where they are never fully in control. Rather than get to direct grips with the space station itself, most of Observation is seen via video feed, in different menus of the operating system of S.A.M., or sometimes via drones that can be controlled both within the claustrophobic environment of the station or beyond in the void of space.
Observation handles this detachment well, allowing the player to always feel that one step away from the struggles of the surviving crew members, notably Dr. Emma Fisher - with which players will spend the majority of the game. These characters, and their different attachments to S.A.M. as an AI companion, help shape Observation into an interesting way to frame such a story, taking clear cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's not just those easy comparisons of S.A.M. to HAL either, but also the way that both works frame the otherworldly, unknowable nature of the universe at large.
Between the constrictive gameplay and lack of immediate connection with human characters, Observation could have failed as a compelling experience. No Code's attention to detail thankfully keeps this from becoming much of an issue, particularly in the way Observation looks. The player's experience as S.A.M. is full of graphical glitches, with elements of a retro science fiction aesthetic akin to Alien: Isolation - which may not be much of a surprise given that No Code founder Jon McKellan more than played his part in the masterful UI of Creative Assembly's horror title.
Whereas Alien: Isolation very much focused on a physical threat, Observation is much more cerebral in its approach. In a similar manner to Frictional Games' acclaimed horror title SOMA, the player's view of the action through AI and through video feed makes them wonder exactly how S.A.M. has been compromised by the events of the game, supernatural or otherwise. Given the number of graphical glitches, how much of what we witness is truly genuine?
This ties in particularly well to the steadily unraveling horror elements of Observation. While at first it appears as though it is purely a space station damaged and sent off course by some kind of error, before long it's revealed that something more sinister is afoot. Indeed, S.A.M. may well have even had a part to play in the incident itself, although the system's missing information banks mean that answers are not easy to come by.
Users are instead left operating as a barely functioning AI that gains additional operations over time. Observation feels most like the dystopian stealth game Republique or Alien: Blackout, the refreshingly polished mobile sequel to Alien: Isolation. The action is always one step away, giving a sense of powerlessness that helps distill the tension to great effect.
Trying to simulate the feeling of being an artificial intelligence could have been tricky, but by framing S.A.M. as an AI with issues it helps nullify this potential problem. After all, something is clearly wrong with S.A.M. and in part this makes the more human decisions that a player could make fit with the story of the game overall. Making a rash, emotional decision to aid Dr. Fisher or struggling to immediately solve one of the game's puzzles becomes less ludonarrative dissonance and instead a symptom of a wider problem with the AI's programming.
Where Observation sometimes struggles is with its core gameplay. No Code has tried to implement some variety, even allowing the player some freedom of movement in certain sections, but whereas this worked well in the varied locales of Stories Untold the more structured focus of Observation from a setting perspective doesn't do its gameplay any favors. Observation can be broken down into a variety of simple mini games with a few puzzles thrown in, and although some of these work well others can prove to a bit tedious when completing multiple times, such as the lengthy procedure to follow when attempting to broadcast messages.
The moments of exploration help break up the puzzles nicely. Akin to games like Firewatch or What Remains of Edith Finch, a major part of the interesting storytelling in Observation is picking up scraps of evidence through the discovery of audio logs or tattered notes. On top of that, exploring new and foreboding areas takes on a tense turn when put into a vulnerable drone rather than simply watching through security feeds.
Observation isn't perfect, particularly with gameplay that some players may find a little restrictive. However, No Code has once again managed to tell a chilling horror story, this time wrapped up in mind-bending elements that will likely have players thinking on them for weeks to come. Gamers that put narrative at the forefront of the medium should not miss out on a chance to witness No Code solidifying its place as a developer to go to for thoughtful thrills.
Observation releases May 21, 2019 for PC and PS4. Screen Rant was provided with a PS4 download code for the purposes of this review.