What would happen if 2001: A Space Odyssey, Watch Dogs and Adrift had a weird sex party and ended up with a baby. You would get Observation, part story, part hacking and part floating around in space. Sounds like a right odd combination, but it works well for the most part.
Observation is what I like to call an extension to the walking game sim. Games in recent years have tried to blur the barrier between film and game, while in most games the story is carried out via cut scenes. Other games, like the the excellent Edith Finch literally take interactive story telling to the next level. And a whole new genre has been born, the aforementioned Edith Finch, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture amongst others. Observation is similar to these games but takes things to the next logical step.
In Observation, you don’t control a character of sorts, you control the A.I of a space ship. The game starts after a catastrophic accident and as S.A.M (the name of the A.I) its up to you to help the lone survivor Dr Emma Fisher navigate her way through the now wrecked space ship, helping her to figure out what happened, find survivors and get her home.
How can you play a game as a ship I hear you cry? Well when I first heard about this game I was hoping that this giant space ship would transform into a Unicorn sized robot and you go on a killing spree across the universe. Needless to say I was 1000% wrong. To help Emma out you must traverse the space station via the ship’s camera network. If you have played Watch Dogs and the way you can travel through the CCTV network you’ll get an idea of how this works.
An early example is to find a fire that is raging out of control via activating the cameras in each section. Once found you can use the cameras to interact with various objects via either a press of a button or a quick QTE to help Emma reach the room and put out the fire.
And to be truthful, the game doesn’t get much more involved than that. Later on you get to control a power sphere which allows you to travel around the space station (inside and out) in first person which does add a different dimension to the gameplay.
At first, this seems like a cool concept. A walking game without the walking. The trouble is that after a while the you end up moving the camera around slowly switching angles as you go hoping to find something to interact with. It’s like a point and click adventure, or as most gamers know when they are stuck to you walk along the edge of a room or level pressing a button hoping a solution will miraculously present itself. And that’s what Observation feels like more often than not. The clues are not particularly forthcoming. Which kind of leaves you thinking that S.A.M isn’t that intelligent as he doesn’t seem to have control of much in this huge space station.
However the game makes up for these shortfalls by looking amazing and dripping in atmosphere. It has to be said the game is looking amazing. I’m not sure what the developers have done, some kind of filter maybe, but at times the game looks real. Especially when Emma is wearing her space helmet. The bad news is that the lip syncing is a bit of a mess and ruins the illusion somewhat. Personally I would have preferred the protagonist to remain anonymous, keep the helmet on and let us wonder. A little like Samus Aran. Special mention has to made to when you’re outside the space station. It looks simply incredible. Arguably the best portrayal of outer space yet.
The atmosphere and story are also top notch with an 80’s sci-fi vibe buried deep into the entire experience. Little sound effects, the dated computers and graphical interface all adds to that 2001 feeling. Thankfully there is little to no music, perhaps the odd deep elector synth moan but that’s about it. The rest of the game is filled with subtle effects to make you feel like you are alone on a ship in the deep space.
Story wise, the game starts brilliantly with the pre-title section being something that will hook you in. Unfortunately the story struggles to keep your attention simply due to the lack of things there are to do. It also ends suddenly, which could hint at a sequel but I don’t think a game like this needs one. The game works so hard to build up atmosphere, as you would expect from a bunch of developers that worked the Alien Isolation game. Besides the masterpiece of an opening, there isn’t much game here to keep you interested for long.
Observation is a game that is dripping with potential, and starts brilliantly, but the further you go through the game the more your desire to keep playing drains, a bit like a leaky space suit with oxygen depleting issues. It is worth a play through to soak up the brilliant atmosphere and gasp at the visuals. But only the most hardened walking-sim gamer will find much game in this.
Observation is available now (reviewed on PS4 Pro).