Games have the power to transport to worlds better than any other entertainment medium, they can make you experience things you don’t want to do – they can make you see through the eyes of a person you love and they force you see things you didn’t want to see. That’s the power of videogames, but so few developers even attempt narratives like this and will often go down the well worn path of a typical heroes journey with characters that have very little emotional impact. But every so often a game will come along and challenge the film industry and the game industry in tandem making us evaluate what you can do with videogame narratives. Hellblade did it, The Last of Us did it and Observation does it too.
Observation is a short game, clocking in at around 4 hours and it’s better for it, the narrative is tight and well paced – it never outstays its welcome. Taking heavy inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, the plot centres around a crew working on the titular space station Observation as it orbits earth in the year 2026, an unknown event damages the space station and causes it to spin out of control meaning the crew loses contact with each other and earth. It’s here we are introduced to Doctor Emma Fisher and her AI assistant SAM (Systems Administrations and Maintenance).
As the story progresses we learn what truly happened in the accident, weaving an intriguing plot incorporating time travel, extra-terrestrials and the dangers of what advanced artificial intelligence could mean. It’s a thrilling and original sci-fi plot, one with touches of horror. Observation is a thriller in every sense of the word, slowly building to an electrifying and unexpecting conclusion.
The characters are all very well acted, Emma Fisher in particular conveys fear and uncertainty with convincing realism and voicework of Sam is perfectly unnerving and robotic. The acting is supported by a well written script that avoids the pratfalls of other sci-fi videogames and manages to weave exposition into the narrative without feeling like an information dump.
GAMEPLAY AND GRAPHICS
Observation is a indie game but it just about manages to keep up with a lot of it’s AAA counterparts when it comes to graphical fidelity. The space station is beautifully detailed, with the lighting in particular giving the game world a creepy and foreboding atmosphere that keeps pace with the narrative directions of the story. Character models are a big disappointment though, feeling stiff and emotionless with a bad case of uncanny valley in their eyes. It’s a shame as the rest of the game is so well rendered that this one aspect sticks out like a sore thumb and can’t keep up with the excellent performances of the cast. Occasionally characters would clip through scenery too, which just adds to the “Indie” feel the game has. The art design is superb and floating over Saturn is exciting, as you move towards its beautifully rendered hexagon polar storm providing an eye catching feature for the back drop of space walk elements of the game.
The gameplay was the biggest surprise to me, as I was expecting a typical first person walking simulator which couldn’t be further from the truth. This is a puzzle game where you take on the role of the AI programme SAM, from a gameplay stand point and narrative one it’s a perfect way to tell this story. SAM’s is integral to the mystery of the game and your actions have an adverse effect on the characters you encounter, it’s incredibly well thought out and I’ve never played a game quite like it. The moment to moment gameplay is different sets of minigames, from switching on back up power generators, to trapping an enemy in a room with different pattern locks and controlling various CCTV cameras to help characters get into blocked rooms. It’s a gameplay loop I thought I would grow tired of, but the different systems and smart level design meant it rarely outstays its welcome – offering challenges that never get too frustrating but provide a proper sense of achievement when you finally crack them. Some parts of the game task the player with having a fully mobile sentry, whereby you can free roam in first person perspective, this is the main aspect of the game I truly hated, whilst exploration of this beautifully designed world was welcome the controls are absolutely awful, meaning you’ll spend more time hitting into walls than you will solving puzzles.
Music and sound are handled very well, with the vacuum of space convincingly portrayed, alarms and noises inside the space station helping to generate thrills as the story begins to unfurl. The score adds the perfect amount of tension to scenes and knows when to ramp up and pull back. All in all this is a very well directed game.
Observation is a perfectly paced, beautifully realised, story driven puzzle game that manages to create a lasting impression even in its short run time. An intriguing story with immersive gameplay make it a must-play for fans of twisted sci-fi stories and unique puzzles. If you have Xbox Gamepass I would highly recommend giving it a go.
- Excellent script and intriguing story
- Well realised environmental design
- Accessible but challenging gameplay
- Great performances from the entire cast
- Well paced and perfect length
- Poor character models that can’t keep up with the actors
- Awful and frustrating first person controls
- Useless map and navigation when in first person perspective
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