Developed by: No Code
Published by: Devolver Digital
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4
Story-focused video games often invite some sort of identification with a relatable protagonist. “Observation,” a captivating sci-fi-puzzle-game from a number of the creative minds behind “Alien Isolation,” takes a slightly different approach. Rather than cast players in the role of an astronaut struggling for survival onboard a damaged space station, “Observation” inserts players into the circuits of the onboard AI. And because it is difficult to overlook how unnatural it is for a human mind to mimic the smooth functionality of a machine, the game effects a gap between the player and the player’s avatar that is intriguingly disorienting.
“Observation’s” peculiar strength is in harnessing and undermining one’s capacity for detachment. The game opens with Dr. Emma Fisher, an astronaut on an International Space Station, sending out an S.O.S. call after an incident knocks the station from its trajectory and damages its operating AI, S.A.M. After Emma reboots the system, the first task for the player is to accept or reject her voice authentication by moving a slider along the screen that serves as a voice analyzer then clicking a tab to indicate S.A.M.’s response.
Curious to see what would happen if I decided to be uncooperative, I rejected Emma’s voice signature a couple of times before she ran a bypass code on me. Since I was the ghost in the machine, I took perverse pleasure in that exchange. As I recollected past crises with uncooperative computers, I wondered how long I’d keep up an apathetic front.
Not for long.
One of the first dramatic moments occurs after Emma directs you to see if different modules on the station are still functional. Odd symbols and coordinates flash across the screen which looks like an artfully distorted video feed. (Like “Alien Isolation,” “Observation” channels an analogue vibe.) A high-pitched sound swells in the background prompting a reasonably panicked Emma to ask S.A.M. what’s going on. There is nothing the player can do but watch as the words “Bring Her” briefly appear on the screen followed by a flash to a mysterious landscape then grows dark. It's interesting to have your avatar do things you don't understand; in the game, no one is all-powerful or outside of the scope of someone else’s observation.
The situation grows increasingly strange after Emma realizes the station is hovering near Saturn and S.A.M. admits that he took them there but doesn’t know why. From that point on, I was committed to helping Emma however I could. Usually that meant consulting one of the game’s sub-menus to locate cameras throughout the station that I could access and, from there, manipulate electronic devices in the vicinity — monitors, hatch doors, laptops, etc.
Though it is easy to feel detached behind a camera, working through a number of the game’s puzzles reminded me that I was a varyingly slow witted-human. Listening to Emma chide me to hurry up with some urgent matter or feeling at a loss for what to do next made me aware that I made for a poor AI companion.
The puzzles in “Observation’ are varied. They feel “technical” without being overly so. There are knobs to adjust, coordinates to enter, schematics to copy, and wires to connect. These user interfaces are well designed and further the game’s retro aesthetic. At a certain point, Emma hooks S.A.M. up to a spherical device so that he can float around and outside of the ship. Guiding the Connection Sphere through the ship’s corridors lends to the impression that one is orchestrating a series of lovely tracking shots. The game’s cinematic flair is obviously indebted to films such as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “Gravity.”
Although “Observation’s” story ultimately falls back on one of the biggest tropes in pop culture — multiple dimensions — I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. On an audiovisual level this is a beautifully executed game with good voice acting. Aspiring space cadets take note.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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