Observation is a game that sets itself up like 2001: A Space Odyssey, but which instead turns out to be more like The Cloverfield Paradox.
(Or Sunshine, if you want to be a little more charitable.)
To be fair to the devs behind Observation I don’t doubt that this is 100% intentional. Doing tense, psychological drama based around the isolation of being in deep space is hard. Doing something a little more pulpy that leans rather more heavily on weird alien bullshit than it really should do is much easier — and besides, the dev outfit behind Observation (a Scottish studio called No Code) have Alien: Isolation in their list of prior work, so arguably they’re playing to what they know. And yet I can’t deny I’m disappointed; the central gameplay premise of Observation is that instead of playing one of the many Crew: Expendable astronauts that always get caught up these space-based horror shenanigans, you’re instead playing the “helpful” AI companion responsible for running their space station. In other words, you’re the HAL-9000 of this scenario. If you know the backstory of 2001 you’ll know this is an extremely promising idea1, but Observation plays it almost completely straight, with your AI nature only really being apparent in gameplay terms in the way that you respond to crew queries. Otherwise your role in this game is indistinguishable from an actual human manning a CCTV station, because that’s 90% of what you actually do in Observation: look at things through cameras, find the magic spot in your field of vision that’ll let you wirelessly connect to a target device, and then solve some minigame to progress the story. “Accidental” crew murder is very definitely not on the agenda here, if only because they’ve all already vanished by the time the game starts.
The year is 2026, and humanity has somehow managed to build another two International Space Stations and bolt them together with the existing ISS to create a (comparatively) gigantic super space station called the Observation. Despite the enormous scale of the station the Observation only has a crew of six, and five of them have gone missing as of the start of the game, leaving only the medical officer, Dr Emma Fisher. Thankfully astronauts cross-train into multiple different disciplines and so she has more than enough technical skill to reboot the Observation’s station AI, called SAM. Judging from the way the rest of the game unfolds, this is because she’s too lazy to find the rest of the crew herself and would prefer to sit in one place while her robot slave does it for her. However, there’s a couple of not-insignificant complications to this task:
- The Observation has somehow been instantaneously moved from Low Earth Orbit to somewhere in the vicinity of Saturn, a process which has seriously damaged both the station and SAM’s integration with its systems.
- Even if this were not the case, SAM appears to be the crappiest AI in the entire history of fictional AI.
The first point is that weird alien bullshit I mentioned earlier. To Observation’s considerable credit it doesn’t rely on it too much in the first half of the game except to set up the initial scenario of suddenly being marooned a very long way from home, and instead focuses on the comparatively mundane task of immediate survival on a modern-day space station where everything is going wrong. The Observation itself is modelled beautifully; the interior is cramped and claustrophobic with absolutely no wasted space, just like a real space station. Everything is clamped, velcroed or taped to walls, and the things that aren’t demonstrate why this is so as they free-float in the middle of cabins, blocking access and sightlines and generally being a huge pain in the ass. It’s a little too clean — despite the attention to detail it’s still not quite cluttered enough, presumably because this would have meant copy-pasting assets even more than the game already does — and there’s a couple of areas that are straight out of regular sci-fi films like The Martian2, but in general it’s a great space to be clambering around in.
Which is why it’s a little bit curious that you don’t.
The choice to make the player avatar an AI rather than a human crewmember, while certainly distinctive, hobbles Observation considerably. SAM’s AI core is located in a large-ish chamber that’s straight out of 2001, but there don’t appear to be all that many CPU cores in there because he – you – is only capable of doing a single thing at a time. Your highest-level interface with the station is the map view, which shows the interconnected web of modules that comprises the Observation. (Again, a nice touch is that it’s a strictly utilitarian layout with absolutely no thought given to aesthetics because aesthetics are worthless in space.) Click on a module and you’ll possess one of the cameras in that module, which can pan and zoom to a limited degree. Each module has two or three cameras that you can tab through, and while you’re panning each camera around you’ll occasionally run across a magic wireless hotspot that denotes a device that SAM can connect to — exactly why SAM has to wirelessly connect to stuff through a camera instead of a network hub is, unfortunately, never explained. Observation is strictly linear, and if you connect to a device that’s not relevant to the specific stage of the story that you’re on then it’ll tell you you can’t use it yet. Much of Observation is therefore about flicking through various station modules and cameras until you find the one device that you can use, and then using that to advance the story.
I’m selling the gameplay a little short here, I suppose. Each device you can connect to gets its own little dedicated minigame, and while these are never particularly complex (we’re talking about things like “click on all of the green tiles” and “adjust some sliders until the readouts are all SAFE”) they’re at least pleasingly rendered. All of the “AI” interfaces are quite good, in fact; the station map and the internal representation of SAM’s memory core are both clean and stylish, and I was particularly taken with the one thing in Observation which you wouldn’t get in a game where you weren’t playing an AI, which is how you respond to user input from Emma. You push a button that brings up an overlay splitting the screen into chunks, and then you click on the bit she’s asking a question about to spout a voice response that uses natural language while being screamingly artificial, which only slightly gives the impression that you’re just playing the role of a smarter-than-average Amazon Alexa. Unfortunately the use of this voice response interface is restricted in much the same way as the general story progression is, and you will only be able to respond about the thing Emma is asking about; clicking on anything else results in a “No response available” message, which I thought was a shame because I would have at least liked the opportunity to torment her by telling her all about the station toilet status when she’s pleading with me to put out the fire in module 14.
You’re also occasionally given the opportunity to possess a small camera drone that’s roughly the size of a football, complete with tiny reaction thrusters that allow it to move in six axes. This at last allows you to traverse those spaces that you spend so much time staring at through the fixed cameras, even if the gameplay is otherwise identical: you get your drone close enough to a target device to connect to it, solve the minigame and then move on to the next thing, and then when you’ve done that two or three times the game decides you’ve had enough fun with the drone for now and kicks you back into the main station cameras because the battery has run out. Unfortunately these segments end up being confusing more than they are immersive, thanks to the restricted viewing angle afforded by the drone camera, the six axes of freedom in a microgravity environment and the fact that the authentically modular construction of the Observation means that all of the modules look the same. It is extremely difficult to get your bearings because there’s very few points of reference that you can use to anchor yourself; often I’d have to figure out which end of a module I was looking at by checking my position on the station map, jetting forward a couple of feet and then checking the map again to see which direction I’d moved in.
There’s a couple of undeniably effective sequences where you do an EVA with the drone to access systems located on the station exterior, and these carry some of the same claustrophobic terror of the EVA bits from Alien: Isolation, even if they are considerably deadened by the fact that you are an AI controlling an entirely disposable robot drone instead of a terrified, vulnerable human being. Even when you’re outside, though, you still need to do the same things that you do inside: find the glowing control panel, connect to it wirelessly and solve a minigame. Why is everything on the Observation on a wireless connection, and why does SAM have to be physically staring at the wireless hotspot before he can connect to it? Why is nothing connected via a hardline3? Was the Observation designed by the same idiots who think that smart homes are a great idea because they like the idea of having a conversation with their fridge? Because here’s the thing: in space travel, being technologically fancy takes a very distant second place to being robust, reliable and having triple-redundancy built into every system. It’s particularly annoying, given the effort that’s been spent on getting the Observation looking and sounding like an authentic modern-day space station, that your primary mode of interaction with it tosses that conceit out of the window and implements something so gamey.
Outside of the minigames and the looking-at-things-through-cameras, there’s not much else to Observation, really. Oh, occasionally a magic hexagon shows up and plays a little bit of Simon Says with you, and this is apparently connected to how the Observation got to Saturn in the first place; that particular mystery and the generally encroaching space weirdness is actually pretty well-done as far as these things go, and put me in mind of the better variety of sci-fi horror B-movie. None of it really requires your presence or interaction as the station AI, though, and you could have just as easily been a second crew member — or played the part of Emma Fisher herself. There’s the odd bit where you see a hook for more expansive gameplay that seems to have been cut, like the software upgrades for SAM and the drone that involve collecting three QR codes and piecing the information together; unfortunately the way they’re implemented is that all of the codes for each upgrade are stuck to a single piece of paper immediately next to the barrier you need them to circumvent. There’s also the occasional moment where you have to use different camera angles to search for hidden details in the surrounding environment, such as a password stuck to the back of a laptop, and even though this is one of the most basic things you could be doing with a camera-based setup the general gameplay is so restrictive that it’s still pleasant to be doing something that’s not wirelessly connecting to a minigame interface.
Otherwise Observation is a strictly linear narrative experience where you unravel the mystery of the weird alien bullshit in much the same way as you would in your typical walking simulator. Now, that being said, and despite my feeling that the premise of playing a station AI has been totally mishandled, it’s not a bad walking simulator. It’s definitely not a Gone Home or a What Remains Of Edith Finch or an Eastshade, and I don’t think it’s even as good as something like Firewatch or Tacoma, but I also don’t think it lags all that far behind the pack. The visual design of the station is good, and the voice acting and general production values are top-notch even there’s a couple of moments where the story runs up against the technical limitations of the engine. It mostly suffers from a small cast and a lack of an original central concept, since aside from the AI thing it’s really not doing anything I’ve not seen done better elsewhere, but lack of originality is hardly a cardinal sin in the videogaming space and Observation has just enough style to make itself generally palatable. And while it is probably not a game I would have given the time of day to if we weren’t currently in a bit of a dead zone for new releases, I at least did not regret playing Observation after I finished it.
- HAL goes nuts and tries to kill his crew because he’s given conflicting directives about his mission, and it would have been cool if Observation had had me trying to resolve the same ethical dilemmas. ↩
- Which I think is still great, but the spaceship interior looks more like a flying hotel than it does something we’d be building in the next couple of decades. ↩
- To be fair all of the laptops on the ISS connect via wi-fi, but I have an extremely hard time believing the station life support is also wireless. ↩