Observation Review

Being isolated in space is a recurring and usually effective theme in science fiction entertainment, from the iconic movie 2001: Space Odyssey to the harrowing survival horror of the video game Alien: Isolation. Somewhere in-between sits Observation, an interactive thriller from a Scottish indie developer No Code. It comes as no surprise that the team includes members who developed Alien: Isolation, as Observation borrows a first-person view on-board a secluded space station, seen through heavy post-processing effects that mimic watching a worn-out VHS tape. The concept of an artificial intelligence, in turn, owes a lot to Stanley Kubrick’s classic movie, something the developers openly admit. With such strong examples to hold on to, the game’s premise couldn’t be better.

Astronaut Dr. Emma Fisher finds herself suddenly alone on-board Observation, an international space station orbiting Earth. Or at least, it was supposed to. Emma employs the help of a station-wide artificial intelligence SAM after rebooting him and bringing his systems one by one back online. A pre-credits bewilderment ends to a revelation that somehow, Observation isn’t near Earth anymore. Instead, it’s orbiting Saturn. How did it happen? SAM scans his own internal systems and comes to a chilling conclusion; it seems it was him who brought the station there. “Bring her”, says a mysterious command blinking on his view.

The first twist of the game is that the player assumes the role of SAM, who more or less blindly follows Emma’s commands, hopping from a camera to another to manipulate passage ways, scan databases, and download schematics to get station systems up and working. In practice, you’re panning camera views to spot interactive bits that turn out into simple puzzles and minigames. Soon, SAM is also able to enter a sphere to swiftly move through the station corridors and sections, and make space walks, er, space spins. The point of view is heavily coated in a lovable analogue aesthetic. It all looks like watching a sci-fi movie on a VHS tape that was passed from a friend to another in the schoolyard, and each time it was copied to another tape, the picture quality degraded accordingly. Kids today, they really are spoiled with ultra-HD that never loses its pixels!

As strong as the visual appeal is, in the long run it unfortunately can’t cover up what really is name of the game. Simply put, Observation is a glorified version of Simon Says. Emma gives you orders, and you follow them through. That’s it. No room for own thinking or exploring the station in your peace or to your own devices. As it turns out, the game is actually a linear narrative experience that is only spliced with a series of puzzles and minigames that have been forced upon its course. It feels so pointless to punch in a code into a sub-system when the solution to it is next to the puzzle interface! The puzzles don’t even evolve but remain pretty similar all the way to the end, and some only require SAM to talk back to Emma. As easily the developers could have settled with an ashamed narrative experience with no pretentious interaction thrown in. Or at least have made it to require more effort from the player to solve the puzzles. As they are now, they only manage to plod the pacing. You really stop caring for the story when the gameplay becomes so tedious and dull.

Another big problem is the lack of emotional response. As the player is just an AI who can’t feel or experience anything, the game experience is left to a role of an observer. Okay, that might have actually been intentional but it really doesn’t work here because the gameplay is so weak and quite frankly, pointless. Also, the game’s portrayal of AI is problematic in the sense that all information is seen and interpreted by a human playing it. In the end, the presentation becomes superficial. Instead of being there, you’re merely viewing it, again, just observing. When the boredom sinks in, you just want to see through Emma’s and SAM plight as soon as possible, barely paying attention to the supposedly dramatic narration anymore.

The rest of the emotion is killed off by Emma. Her inconsistent voice acting and wooden character model are just too awkward to take her seriously. I wasn’t entirely emotionless, though, as I often felt irritated by Emma’s pretentious delivery, her blank eyes, and the story that tried to be a bit too smart for its own good. After tediously fiddling through all the menial puzzles, the ending just made me shrug my shoulders instead of giving me shivers that I was supposed to have felt. It’s too bad that the promising premise fizzled as soon as the gameplay showed its true colors, watering down the prevailing mystery in the process.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.