System: PC, PS4, Xbox One | Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code | Reviewed On: PC
OBSERVATION is a sci-fi thriller masterpiece and tells the story of Dr. Emma Fisher, aboard the Observation space station, in her bid to find out what happened to her crew and the state of the station after mysterious events have come to pass, 'observed' by SAM, an artificial intelligence assigned to the station and its systems.
The year is 2026 and Dr. Emma Fisher regains consciousness aboard the Observation, the international space station supposedly in orbit around Earth, only to find that the station is completely inoperable (for now) and her mission crew are nowhere to be seen.
You assume the role of SAM, an onboard artificial intelligence after he is rebooted by Emma, and are tasked with assisting in her initial process of diagnostics and re-engaging some of the vital systems in the Observation. A few interestingly random occurrences later - a fire in one of the modules, the discovery of an unidentifiable organic substance, weird as hell flashing glyphs - and it isn't long before it becomes apparent that something all too esoteric has happened which is compounded when you realise you aren't in orbit around the Earth anymore. An unspecified amount of time has passed and you appear to be orbiting Saturn, of all places. Atop this bow wave of information is the fact that, when interrogated, the station black box reveals the reason for the relocation... is you, through means and motive unknown.
As you work to reinstate systems, eject modules and collect the aforementioned data, you are first subjected to an unusual mode of play. The mechanics of your role are somewhat unique in the sense that you do not have a body: you are but a combination of camera systems in every module of the station and you are able to flick between them at will, well almost.
This bespoke aspect in itself is so bizarre and appealing in a lot of ways. You don't actually feel like you're playing a game, to begin with, but rather a simulation accompanied by instructions from a human. You are able to access particular systems and items of equipment such as laptops through visual means, to gather data and carry out functions remotely to assist Emma in her work, and it's only when more strange events begin to happen that you absorb the story into your trajectory.
Eventually, you are dropped into a body, of sorts. A small sphere equipped with thrusters allowing you to traverse the station freely in zero gravity whilst harbouring most of the abilities you had when disembodied. It takes a while to become familiar with the control of your orb in first-person and I found it particularly disorientating at times as I rotated through all axis', sometimes realising that I had retraced in the direction I'd just floated.
Now, with a little extra freedom - and difficulty - you can fly around like Wizziwig (please tell me someone other than myself remembers that little alien?), and access hatch door systems, laptops, collect or scan in essential documents and follow Emma around the station, an unlikely companion.
What I noticed more is the effect the game has on you in this regard. I felt obligated to help Emma, a connection. You care for her, or at least you care for her until you agree to bring her to the 'entity' HA! Who am I to argue with something I don't understand nor do I want to get on the wrong side of? You are a system, and systems are there to serve commands, regardless of the commander.
Anyway, back to floating about. As I mentioned before, the mechanics are unique and something I haven't experienced before. The realism built into this game is substantial. One thing I would say is that when outside in space in the sphere, the movement's realism ends somewhat abruptly. When propelled forward by thrusters, instead of careening on after the thruster burn ends, you lose momentum and stop. Now it doesn't take a genius to deduce that that isn't what would happen in the vacuum of space, but I understand why No Code didn't build that aspect in. It would require some skill in learning how to control and manipulate the sphere, and thus would take the spotlight away from the story and the impact they wanted to instil.
The puzzles of this game are of the same unique nature as the mechanics. Not once in my gaming career have I played an Ai system which is almost believable to exist in today's world, and the puzzles and interfaces designed for your pleasure are congruent with this analogy.
The interfaces are simple, aesthetically pleasing in the sense they are what you would expect them to be, and are completely satisfying, almost analogue in appearance. And the puzzles reflect how you would expect a computer to see them.
Not only that, but they are also plentiful and diverse. There are the systems you operate to unlock, open, close and lock hatches which are all the same (with added difficulty if you don't have the schematic to plug into it), and then there are systems/puzzles which you never see again. One thing that I enjoyed was the fact that you are given not one iota of help or tutorial for solving these things. You are left to look at the analogue puzzle and figure out what to do. It reminds me of something like you would encounter on a program designed for Windows NT.
So, you are just getting comfortable in floating around in a sphere you can hardly control, solving very rudimentary puzzles on analogue computer systems and everything is right in the world.....wrong!
A few body discoveries later, including your OWN, and the discovery of another identical station which turns out to be your station with apparent clones of your team on board, and you're partway to realising your destiny in this reality.
Without actually realising it, you end up in complete service to the 'entity', following its command to bring Emma to it on Saturn, and as things start heating up (and by that I mean get weirder and weirder), you do so out of pure curiosity.
Without describing much more about the story (even though I have already spoiled some of it) - as I feel that everyone should experience it in its entirety - I will talk about the voice acting which will be brief. In short, the voice actors for this game are, for want of a better word, almost perfect. Not that No Code had to find many, as there are only a select few on your team, but hats off to them on who they hired to do the job. The script and acting are excellent and so natural. The only thing I would have wanted is more realistic reactions to things that were happening in the story at a given point. In some areas, I feel like the script dictates a reaction which is not synonymous with how a human would react in that situation, or at least, the reactions given weren't as exasperated as they should have been.
I have to admit that there were a few points in the game where my heart was racing, and jumped out of my skin at various points. No Code sure know how to put the jeepers into people with the scenes they constructed, especially with the audio they used. But that's exactly what makes it a great game; they cultivated something more than just a game, it was an experience, almost completely cinematic.
I went into this with absolutely no expectations and installed it purely because it was just sat there on Xbox Game Pass and it just happened to be a space-related game. I have emerged from it, in total awe of the effect it had on me and as a package, it was a masterpiece. I believe that the story itself could easily warrant a feature-length film script and be successful.