Score: 8.5/10 | SCI-FI THRILLER | PUZZLE ADVENTURE | INTERACTIVE STORY
“Playing through the eyes of the ship’s AI, SAM, was fantastic and the puzzles and gripping story give Observation its own thrilling identity.”
Observation is a sci-fi thriller puzzle adventure game developed by No Code and published by Devolver Digital. It was released on PC via the Epic Games Store and PlayStation 4 on May 21, 2019. A lot of games come with Epilepsy warnings as you load them and usually, I don’t pay attention to these kinds of things. However, if you are prone to bright flashing lights then beware, there are moments in this game that flash quickly and brightly. They are part of key story elements but even I was a little put off by them.
Observation is a story-heavy game, to the point it plays as an interactive sci-fi movie. A lot of sci-fi games have you playing a lone human survivor on an abandoned ship in deep space where the AI of the ship is often your only companion. This is a similar premise in Observation except this time you are playing as the ship’s Artificial Intelligence named SAM, short for Systems Administration & Maintenance, with lone crew member called Dr Emma Fisher.
You are on board an international space station called Observation, 410km above Earth. The game starts with Emma trying to contact Houston as there has been some accident or collision. She tries to hail the other members of her crew but with no response, so she asks you/SAM to give her admin access to the ships systems. She asks you to respond and you hold R, then hover the mouse over her question on the heads-up display where you respond in an artificial voice. Emma then connects you to the camera system in the module she is in, and this is where you learn to navigate the ship via its systems. There are multiple cameras in each section, and you can switch between them to give you a better viewing angle. Emma guides you through accessing hatch controls, enabling you to open them electronically so that she can reach your main interface.
It is in these first few scenes that I’m taken back to playing another sci-fi thriller, Alien: Isolation. Whilst the gameplay is vastly different with Isolation having a lot more reactive action shooting, the flashing visuals with sparking electrical devices, the eerie music and general hum of the ship, and the crackly voice of Emma over the comms, all made me feel as if I was playing in the same setting of Isolation. With that came a lot of tension and anxiety initially as that game scared the s**t out of me a lot with the xenomorph creeping around the ship. It’s no wonder I felt this way as many of the developers of Observation also worked on Alien: Isolation.
However, the tension in this game was more due to the premise of the characters and the interactions between Emma and SAM, but also the realisation that something is not right. This feeling is bought to the forefront as the opening sequence produced a big “Whoah!” moment and I was well and truly hooked. As my nerves settled down, the game then started to feel like the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey with the relationship between Dave and HAL. Without giving away spoilers, certain things happen that make you question the intentions of SAM (who’s voice acting is similarly as well done as HAL’s), even though you’re controlling him directly for the most part. Does SAM have an ulterior motive or is there some other external force involved? Certainly, I felt Emma relied on SAM’s presence, for her own sanity if anything, and even she started to question some of SAM’s/our actions.
The visuals of the game are amazingly detailed, and I love this kind of artwork portraying the inside and outside of the space station. The halls are littered with items that can be interacted with such as control panels, personnel closets displaying pictures of home, documents that can be scanned and laptops that can be accessed. Sometimes the laptops will have password protection so you will need to look around that room for some clues to crack the password. Some passwords are written on sticky notes and others require you to think about the solution, referring to knowledge of the laptop owner (birth dates, graduation dates, etc).
By accessing these laptops and reading notes, you unlock lore entries that you can read later in SAM’s memory core function. More importantly though, information you find can be connected to help you solve puzzles. For example, you need to scan three documents and once those documents are connected in the memory core, it unlocks a blueprint allowing you then to operate a control panel or to gain access to the airlock system as an example. Speaking of airlocks, there are a couple of times where you need to go EVA outside the ship. This reminded me of scenes from the movie Gravity where Sandra Bullock was looking down at Earth from outside her station. Whenever someone goes EVA in a game or movie, I get an overwhelming feeling in my stomach, as I am fearful of their predicament and that one false move could see them floating endlessly in space, unable to be rescued. It’s amazing how movies and games can do this with their visuals.
There was a frustrating moment when I was on my first EVA outside the ship. At first Emma was guiding me to find external clamps and gave me updates as I got closer. However, I was then tasked with finding damage on the outer hull but with no further guidance. For ages I scoured the hull for damage, and when I did find some major dents and scorch marks, though obvious damage has occurred, this wasn’t what Emma was referring to. I had to pretty much scan the entire hull and was halfway around my second lap of the ship when I finally found what she was looking for. Holding down R to attempt to respond to an action was the thing that saved me, so I’d recommend using that to help scan for interactable sections as opposed to just scanning with your own eyes.
There are many puzzles to solve through the game and later SAM can travel around the ship in a sphere giving you almost free reign to explore the four different arms of the space station. Some of the puzzles are straight forward whilst others relied on visual memory of patterns and sequences. Later in the game I got completely lost and disoriented in the ship as I had to get from one arm of the ship to another and the lighting of the ship was damaged in parts, so it made for some frustrating exploration back and forth. Eventually if you stop and look at maps and information in the memory core and think logically about the problem, the solution will eventually click.
I can’t tell you much more about the story as it will give away spoilers. I finished the game in about 5.5 hours and some time was spent stumped on some of the puzzles. The story though was riveting, thought provoking and well-paced for me to keep up with most of what was going on. The final sequence of events unravelled everything you had learned and experienced over the course of the game. I had to think about the final scenes for a while and eventually read some other people’s thoughts on them to help me understand exactly what it meant. It’s one of those endings that is left up to your interpretation of events that unfolded. For those that have played and finished it, I’d love to have a chat further about it.
Overall, I gave this game an 8.5/10. Observation is a sci-fi thriller adventure game with outstanding visuals and similar tension found in Alien: Isolation, minus the action gameplay and xenomorphs. Playing through the eyes of the ship’s AI SAM was fantastic and the puzzles and gripping story give Observation its own thrilling identity.
This review utilised the PC version of the game through the Epic Games Store with 5 hours of gameplay.