Back in October 2018, we were treated to a teaser trailer for the new space-based narrative immersive mystery, Observation. As a fan of similarly themed games, such as Tacoma, Alien: Isolation, and The Station, I could only imagine what the game would be; Would we be wandering around a ship looking for our crew? Will there be a threat we have to escape from? Or are we simply trying to find answers aboard someone else’s ship? So many questions with no clear answers.
From developer No Code, the team behind the BAFTA-winning ‘Stories Untold’, what we got was a little of all of the above nicely packaged into one of the most immersive interactive narrative experiences I’ve played outside of PSVR. I wouldn’t be surprised if this game delivers another BAFTA to the team.
Our story begins with the awakening of Dr. Emma Fisher, a scientist aboard the spaceship named ‘The Observation‘. Not only does she not recall previous events, but she also finds herself locked within one of the sections within the ship. With no response from the crew and no visibility outside of the four walls which are serving as an intergalactic prison, there’s only one person she can turn to, Sam. Well, S.A.M (Systems, Administration and Maintenance). That’s right, unlike similar games we’ve seen on the PS4, you’ll actually be playing the role of the AI which is in control of the ship, rather than the lifeforms aboard it.
After learning how to open the door to let her out, Dr. Fisher will begin to search for her crew whilst also giving you ‘chores’ to perform such as looking for logs on various machines, fixing faults, and investigating places she can’t get too. As you uncover more information, you’ll begin to unlock the other sections of the ship, such as the Russian and Chinese wings. Surely someone must be here, right?!
That’s about as far as I want to go in terms of the story, as I don’t want to spoil any of the narrative because it’s a brilliant story which you need to experience first-hand. You’ll ultimately help out Dr. Fisher as you try to piece together what’s happened to the crew, where you are, if the situation is safe, and how to proceed.
The gameplay within Observation is quite unlike anything I’ve played for a while, especially on the PlayStation 4. Instead of taking control of the protagonist, we’re effectively a ‘fly on the wall’ as we watch the action take place in front of us. In a way, it almost reminds me of The Invisible Hours. However, Observation has more interactive moments as you’re an actual physical ‘thing’ and not a ghostly presence as you are within that game. Initially, you’ll be confined to the various security camera, moving around them ala Five Nights at Freddy’s via the menu, flicking back and forth and watching the protagonist search the ship. You won’t only watch though, as you can zoom in to unlock doors, hack and read various laptops, report back to Emma any faults you find, and even activate various system functions.
Within the first thirty minutes or so, you’ll get integrated with one of the ships ‘spheres’, this now lets you freely float around in zero gravity as you explore the ship away from the confines of the video cameras. Whilst within your new body, the functions you can perform are the same as before, only now you can venture into places which don’t have working cameras and you can even go outside of the ship to perform various maintenance operations. You’re not forced to stay like this though as you can easily flip between both the sphere and the internal systems as the game progresses, which is very important once you begin to unlock more wings of the station where the orb can’t travel to.
Whilst you’re out exploring, turning on heating valves, repairing the ship, and reading secret emails between the crew members, Emma is doing her own investigating around the ship and will often come to you to offer a human touch, or ask you to lead her into the unknown. Because of this, the game felt very realistic and almost like a movie more than anything else. Sure, I was interacting and taking control of S.A.M., but the whole experience felt so natural as everything intertwined with each other – the best way to describe it is, it’s like a well-oiled machine with all pieces working perfectly in sync with one another to provide a seamless movie-like experience.
Puzzles and collectables
Aside from the narrative, there are a number of puzzles and obstacles which you’ll come accross. A lot of these will revolve around the various doors, as some of them are locked and require unlocking. Thankfully, as you’re technically a computer system, you can hack the various panels in the ship and force things to open on your command. However, this requires you to first find the ‘cheat-sheet’, a schematic guide showing you the shape you must draw to lock, unlock, open, and close the various doors. Once you have it, it’s time to explore and see what dirty secrets you can find!
Some of the puzzles are very easy, yet some require a lot more thought as they move into the logical-thinking format. Nothing is too hard, although some of them are a little confusing, such as one which requires you to pinpoint your ships exact coordinates on a giant space map. However, they are all satisfying to solve and never feel repetitive, despite the fact that a few of the puzzle formats do repeat. What I liked about the various challenges you’ll find throughout the game is that none of them come with instructions on what to do. You’ll sometimes find info via data logs or audio recordings, but it’s up to you to work out what you’re actually supposed to do in order to succeed.
Aside from the puzzles, you’ll have access to the entirety of the ships logs, albeit a few emails at a time on the many scattered laptops throughout the station. Not only will you gain intel into who everyone is, what their relationships were like, and who pisses each other off, you’ll find vital info on the mission your crew were on and a bit of background into what’s going on. You’ll also come accross many voice logs, which you can listen to, and a bunch of corrupted files which are stored within S.A.M. upon finding them. The corrupted files can be combined, with a schematic showing how to fix them, in order to unlock new story-based abilities and functions.
Oh, there are also trophies assigned to finding all of these logs/documents, as well as a few other missable things. As you’ve probably already guessed – once you reach the end, you’re given a ‘point of no return’ warning – proceed past this and you need to play the game again from the beginning should you wish to go back and get anything you missed.
What do you do next?
My only complaint with Observation is its lack of guidance, but that also works in the game’s favour. In the early stages of the game, you can ask Emma to repeat what she’s asked you to do. Sometimes this will result in her rewording what she asked into a more straight-forward manner. Although sometimes, it still isn’t very clear so I ended up getting lost a few times. The fact you can freely move around in the full 360 degrees, whilst having no mini-map or a clear sense of direction (outside of a static wireframe schematic of the ship), means you’ll find yourself getting confused at times as you try and figure out which way you’re supposed to be going. However, this makes the game much more realistic, although it does mean the AI who runs the ship has no idea where he’s going as I constantly bashed into the walls whilst reorientating myself!
As you progress towards the end of the game, you’ll get no additional support on where you have to go or what you have to do. So, you best listen out to any instructions and read anything you find, as it’s not very clear at all. Although I said it took me about five hours to complete the game, I think I could have shaved about thirty minutes off that if I hadn’t got really confused at what the game wanted me to do doing the final moments of the experience. **I later realised you can push in R3 to get a hint on what to do next – keep this in mind!**
Despite the negativity, I’m happy Observation has omitted things like waypoints, guidance arrows and indicators within the HUD. Your experience is amplified when you have to work things out for yourself as you get so much more satisfaction once you arrive at the correct location or understood what was being asked of you.
We have to talk about the visuals and the graphical filters as they are bloody brilliant! I’m not sure what year the game takes place in, but it gives off a 1980s vibe, just like Alien: Isolation did. Once you jump into a sphere, the visual quality will closely resemble a VHS recording, with lots of noise and fuzz as you move around. If you bump into anything you’ll see distortion on the video feed, distortion which is similar to pausing or rewinding/fast forwarding a VHS. It all works seamlessly and looks so natural, the entire experience is enhanced tenfold for having this visual effect present. Also, depending on which sphere you take control of, you’ll see various error messages in other languages, out of focus HUD elements, and general wear and tear on the feed.
Stepping back and not praising the game for its glorious use of the VHS filter, what’s Observation like in general? For an indie game, I’m super impressed. Apart from a few instances of low texture quality and clipping elements (which I found when I got lost towards the end of the game), everything looks like it’s come straight out of Alien. From the pristine white walls to the bold, contrasting colours used to indicate where you are, it looks fantastic. One aspect which made me smile every single time was the basic computer interfaces used throughout the game. It really is like the Alien movie with their ’80s look on futuristic tech, yet still using old BBC Micro-like technology. Actually, I saw a computer which looked like it was running Windows ’95 at one point, so I guess that could be used to date the game and the tech which was supposedly used within it.
Audio wise, where do I begin? How about with the completely unexpected and awesome title music from Robin Finck (from NiN). Seriously, after a brief intro to the game, the title card comes on screen blasting the music with visuals you’d expect to see in a Hollywood movie. The game itself doesn’t have that much music, it’s all about the atmosphere with lots of ambient noises and drones in the background to set the mood. As I’ve said many times, Observation is all about the narrative and immersion, so far I’ve not found anything which pulls you out of this throughout the entire playthrough.
I guess the final thing we can really critique to find a fault with is the vocal aspect with the voice artists. However, you can’t fault this either! Everyone delivers their lines with pure emotion as they all deliver performances which rival some of the best voice artists I’ve heard over the years. The mixing, the volume levels, the tones, the accents, the clarity – Nothing but praise for the entire cast and sound engineers.
**The game is set in 2026 – but I still think it feels like the ’80s**
Observation is one of the most immersive interactive narrative-based games I’ve played outside of Virtual Reality. Instead of taking control of the protagonist directly, you’ll be in control of the AI which can traverse through the various systems as you investigate the disappearance of the crew. You’ll be fooled into thinking you’re watching an ’80s Sci-fi film with all of the VHS post-effects and familiar surroundings which look like they’ve been ripped right out of the set from Alien. Although built around the incredibly strong narrative and immersive interactions, you’ll have to overcome various puzzles as you move around the ship trying to uncover the truth.
If you like games such as The Station, Tacoma, Alien: Isolation (minus the run and hide mechanics), and movies such as Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey, you need to pick up Observation today. It’s a five to six-hour immersive experience which shouldn’t be missed.
- - Immersive narrative-driven experience which really sucks you in
- - Great visual effects with VHS filters on the spheres to liken the experience to games such as Alien: Isolation
- - Brilliant voice acting and a really good use of ambient noises to build the suspense in the atmosphere
- - Very intriguing story which unfolds the deeper you get into the game
- - Tonnes of things to find and uncover about the crew via their personal logs
- - Very easy to get lost due to the 360-degree movements and confusing maps
- - The ending confused me a little
- - Not a negative, but I hope we get a PSVR update in the future as the game would be awesome if it did
- - No platinum trophy (some people may care about this)