Observation - title

It's real refreshing to come across a science fiction game that isn't just about shooting aliens with laser guns or blowing up space ships. If you're in the market for a thoughtful, well-presented science fiction experience, then I highly recommend that you check out Observation. If you're also into horror, then even better, because this game definitely has some horror elements as well. They're much more subdued, but this game does do a fantastic job of creating a building sense of tension and intrigue as its over-arching mystery is slowly unfurled.

The gimmick here is that you play as a malfunctioning artificial intelligence on a near-future orbital research station. The game is presented as a sort-of found-footage narrative (think along the lines of the Apollo 18 horror movie) told entirely from the point of view of the on-board A.I. Something goes wrong, the crew are all missing and possibly dead, and you help the sole survivor try to find the remaining crew and piece together what happened to the station. Think along the lines of playing as the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, or as Kevin Spacey's character in the [fantastic] movie Moon. You do this by jumping between different surveillance cameras (a la Five Nights at Freddy's, but, you know, with ambitions of being more than just a random jump-scare-generator). Through the cameras, you interact with various technology and station systems within your line of sight. You'll occasionally be asked questions or given commands by the surviving astronaut, and you chose how to respond.

You are an unreliable A.I.?

From the start, there's a certain degree of unreliable narrator going on. One of the very first actions that the game asks you to do is verify the identify of the surviving astronaut via her voice print. You are initially told that her voice print does not match, and you're given the option to accept or reject her voice print. If you reject, she'll repeat her authorization code, and you'll be told that it matches this time. Is she not who she seems? Are your own systems providing you with misleading information? Are your systems merely damaged? This creates an immediate sense of distrust. You (the player) don't necessarily trust the survivor, the survivor doesn't necessarily trust you, and you can't even trust your own perception and judgement.

From the start, it's unclear whether you can trust Emma, or whether she can trust you...

This immediately creates a dense atmosphere of intrigue and mystery and sets a level of tension that persists through the entire game.

This atmosphere is helped by the richly-detailed near-future space station that you inhabit. The visuals are immaculately detailed, and the station looks and feels like it could be modeled after the real-life International Space Station. The spaces are tight and claustrophobic. Accessories and stationary are strapped or velcroed to the walls, floors, ceiling, and desk surfaces in order to prevent them from floating off in the zero-gravity environment. Everything is believable.

The game further builds its atmosphere with its immersive U.I.. Every button press, command, and interaction has some in-universe context behind it that helps to keep you in the mind-space of your A.I. character. The U.I. is mostly easy to use, and most actions feel intuitive.

This game hooked me in with its setting and atmosphere, and I just had to keep playing to find out what happened and where this would go!

The space station and U.I. are believable and immersive.

...

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The Martian

I dropped the ball on this one. I often criticize Hollywood for not being willing to make genuine, hard science fiction movies anymore, and I begroan the continued bastardization of my beloved Star Trek and the dumbed down action flicks that Hollywood dared to put the "Star Trek" title on. The studios say that science fiction don't make enough money. Apologists say that casual audiences are too dumb and impatient to sit through any kind of slow-developing, cerebral movie. Ironically enough (despite my own frequent cynicism) I think both these apologetics are too cynical and don't give audiences enough credit. I firmly believe that if the studios make a good movie, the audiences will go see it, especially if it's properly marketed.

So when a thoughtful, science fiction movie like The Martian comes out, I try to make a point of spending my money to see it in order to show my support for the continued development of the genre. I made a point of seeing Gravity, despite that movie appearing to be little more than space destruction porn and iMax eye candy. I also made sure that I saw last year's Interstellar. And both of the Planet of the Apes reboots have been surprisingly excellent. Unfortunately, I lost track of the release date of The Martian and missed seeing it on opening weekend (one of Hollywood's biggest metrics of a movie's success). I also wasn't able to see it the week after, or the week after that due to my weekends being consistently busy. It was over a month before I finally put my foot down and said "I'm seeing this movie now! No more delay!". And then I went and saw it twice in that same weekend.

Fortunately, the rest of the country vindicated me by heaping dump trucks full of praise on the movie and putting their butts in the theater seats to keep The Martian at the number 1 spot in the box office for almost the entire month of October (only briefly falling to number 2 for one week behind Goosebumps - really?). It finally took an upteenth sequel to a beloved franchise to topple The Martian when Spectre (which I also saw this weekend) held the top spot for two weeks in a row. The movie itself is earning Oscar buzz, and Matt Damon seems to be the current favorite for "Best Actor". So there you have it, Hollywood: make a good sci-fi movie, and they will come, and they will love it.

The Martian - stranded on Mars
Matt Damon's character is charming and easily has the audience rooting for him against all odds.

And the movie is absolutely fantastic! It's ambitions are closer to Apollo 13 than to 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's a very believable, down-to-earth, science fiction film, the events of which feel like they could happen tomorrow. Matt Damon's performance is absolutely charming as a NASA astronaut stranded on Mars and presumed dead when his team is forced to evac due to a violent sandstorm...

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Lifeless Planet

Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.

The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.

Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?

Lifeless Planet - badlands
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.

From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!

But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.

The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.

Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.

Lifeless Planet - jet pack
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.

Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.

The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths ...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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