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Observation - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Successfully builds intrigue
  • Tremendous attention to detail
  • Stellar visual and audio design
  • Fantastic set pieces
  • Slow and methodical pacing
  • Immersive UI
  • Novel twist to the point-and-click / walking simulator genre

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Almost immediately gives up on its fixed camera gimmick
  • Overly-simple Simon Says puzzles
  • Too much pixel-hunting
  • Some objectives are poorly communicated

Overall Impression : B
Solid premise that is let down by hit-or-miss puzzles

Observation - cover

Developer:
No Code

Publisher:
Devolver Digital

Platforms:
PC (via Epic Store),
PlayStation 4 < (via PSN digital download)
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $25 USD

Original release date:
21 May 2019

Genre(s):
sci-fi, horror, point-and-click, puzzle

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood, Mild Violence, Strong Language

Player(s):
single player

Official site:
observationgame.com/

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.

Slow, tedious puzzles

Unfortunately, I feel like the actual game doesn't quite live up to its premise or first impressions. A lot of this has to do with the lackluster puzzles and disappointingly-limited interaction that the game allows [or doesn't allow]. Most of the puzzles boil down to variations of Simon Says, even though they are dressed up to look much more complicated than they actually are. Heck, one puzzle that gets repeated several times over the course of the game is just a game of Simon Says in which you have to repeat back a pattern that is shown to you.

There's also a frustrating proliferation of pixel-hunting. The most egregious example was one puzzle that is repeated at least once, in which you have to run the cursor over a bunch of black dots in a field of non-discernible black dots until you click on the one specific black dot that allows you to progress the goal. It's a literally hunt for a needle in a stack of needles.

One puzzle literally requires you to run the cursor over non-descript dots to find the right dot.

Most of the rest of the game's puzzles involve panning the camera over an environment, searching for anything that you can interact with, and then interacting with it. Some objects are clearly signposted, and others require you to actually be paying attention to the environment and what's currently going on. Most interactions will require playing a brief mini-game, which are almost always more of these tedious little Simon Says exercises. Pairing with a device or hot-wiring a door (for example) are repeated far too often, and feel like filler puzzles that only serve to unnecessarily pad the game. The stand-out puzzles are the few in which you have to figure out the answer on your own by reviewing documents, or you have to piece together multiple documents or clues to unlock a new clue.

I actually celebrated the slow, tedious interactions present in games like Red Dead Redemption 2 because there's actually payoff for the slowness of those interactions. RDR2's slow, realistic animations not only contributed to the game's overall simulationist feel, but it also forced the player to be judicious with your time and to prioritize activities and actions that might be time-sensitive. You didn't have time to open every cabinent and drawer and search every nook and cranny of a burglarized homestead if you have the authorities or bounty hunters rapidly approaching.

Observation doesn't pay off its slow gameplay, other than by being a deliberately slow and methodically-paced game in general. Yeah, sure, the slowness of your actions is supposed to represent the fact that you're not working at peak efficiency, and your responses are laggy. The game communicates that idea pretty clearly. However, none of these slow or tedious interactions are used to build tension or force the player to make tough decisions under a ticking clock or the interference of an adversary, nor does the game even bother trying to create the illusion of pressure to act quickly. The game is always happy to wait indefinitely for you to do what it expects you to do, even on the couple of occasions in which circumstances (or an agent) are working against you.

Interactions are very slow, and the game never puts pressure on you to be quick or efficient.

At a broader level, the game gives the player very few (if any) meaningful decisions to make. Basically, even though the mystery was compelling, I never felt like I was actually figuring it out or solving it. The pieces were always just being handed to me, and I just had to push the buttons in the right order to be given the next piece.

Droning on

The game also drops its surveillance camera gimmick almost immediately in favor of handing you a small drone that can fly freely within (and without) the station. Here, you actually have the freedom to explore the station. Navigation can be difficult because so many of the environments look so similar, and the spaces are so confined that you can rarely get a broader view of what's around you. There's some color-coding of different rooms to help you know where you are, but I still got lost on multiple occasions because the game takes away your map for large chunks of these exploration segments. I think I would have much preferred if flying the drone had been limited to only the set-pieces outside of the station.

Having freedom of movement meant
looking for clues in every nook and cranny.

You also get burdened with having to search every nook and cranny of the station for the next clue. With the fixed cameras, you know that the clues or solution must be within the field of view of one of the cameras. It's just a matter of panning the camera to find it. With the drone, you might have to maneuver yourself to look under a desk or behind a control panel to find a sticky note with the password to a computer terminal.

There's a few parts of the game where I feel the developers could have done a better job of communicating what they wanted me to do. For the most part, objectives are clearly sign-posted, but a few had me scratching my head wondering "where am I supposed to go?" and "What, exactly do they want me to do now?".

Usually, this came down to me being in the right place, but not clicking on the right pixels to progress. You can press a button to ask the survivor to repeat her last command, but that doesn't help if you're not sure what that command is actually asking you to do. The station is pretty small, and you only have access to portions of it at a time, so it's easy enough to accidentally stumble onto the next clue or puzzle solution without really knowing what you're doing.

There was one situation in which the game bugged out, and I couldn't progress. I had activated a terminal that was a prereq for activating another device. The game didn't recognize the activation of the first terminal and wouldn't let me re-activate it. So I wandered the station for almost an hour trying to find something else that I could maybe use to enable the terminal or device before finally giving up and looking up a walkthrough online to verify that I had done what I was supposed to do. Fortunately, the issue was fixed by simply quitting and re-loading the last save.

I couldn't activate SAM's mainframe because of a glitch that required re-booting the game.

I didn't get a chance to see much in the way of fail states (if there even are any). This game holds your hand pretty tightly, and the few times that I did screw up an input, Observation gave me a second chance, and a third. Going back through and replaying the game to find any documents that you missed or to see if any decisions branch or lead to alternate outcomes is also a chore. You can't skip cutscenes or dialogue, nor is there a chapter select.

Hard sci-fi is a growing genre!

Despite its mechanical weaknesses, Observation is still a solid sci-fi experience. The fact that it actually builds some mystery and intrigue, and actually has a point to it sets it apart from its jump-scare-generator progenitor of Five Nights at Freddy's. It actually gave me a reason to see the game through to the end. The premise is intriguing, the delivery of the main story is captivating, the process of gradually pieces together the smaller dramas between the characters is about as engaging as any of the other well-regarded walking-simulators on the market. Observation is just overall a solid game that just doesn't quite stick its landing.

In the small, but growing field of hard sci-fi video games, Observation definitely warrants a playthrough. If you've enjoyed other games like Tacoma, Event Zero, The Swapper, or Soma, then Observation is right up your alley!

Frequent slow, lingering, methodical shots are clearly inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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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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