by Johnny van Spronsen
reviewed on PC
AI and Human - alone in space
Observation is a sci-fi thriller in which Dr. Emma Fisher finds herself aboard a space station which has just experienced a catastrophic event. Distressed, she reaches out for help but mission control remains silent and the rest of the crew seems to have vanished. Now this is a story that sounds all too familiar except for the fact that you are not playing as the stranded doctor. Developer No Code offers a different perspective by letting you play as the station’s artificial intelligence S.A.M. This allows you to operate the station’s control systems, cameras and tools which you use to assist Emma in discovering what is happening to the station, the vanished crew and to you.
From the start it is obvious that something is terribly wrong. Not just with the station, but also with you. Periodically you’ll see the ominous text ‘Bring her’ flash across the screen. Of course, it’s easy to figure out who 'she' is, but you are left to wonder who it is you should bring her to, where that is and - most importantly - why you even should. It doesn’t help that your memory banks are malfunctioning and that you can’t even verify if it was you who damaged the station in the first place. This overarching mystery is in the heart of the game and it makes for a really compelling plot with lots of twists and intrigue which I obviously won’t spoil here. However, the best part of the well-acted narrative is seeing how the relationship between Emma and S.A.M. develops as the story slowly progresses.
Interdependence in Space
The focus on the developing relationship is reinforced by the fact that the gameplay completely revolves around these two characters. Emma needs S.A.M. to repair the station and give her access to areas she can’t reach herself. In the beginning you can do that by operating various cameras, zooming in on documents and downloading important information from laptops. In return, Emma gives you new parameters such as the ability to link hatch controls or access to a drone which you can use to fly around the station. You’ll come across a variety of obstacles and they often tend to be puzzles based on math or memorization. For instance, there’s a situation in which you must quickly detach a module of the station by first memorizing a sequence of numbers, finding the corresponding keys and following a pattern all the while Emma is panicking. It can lead to some tense situations since failing them alters the story and the station itself in subtle ways.
The station is actually called Observation, hence the title of the game. Visually it’s really close to home and it’s something you would expect to see made by NASA today. The realistic approach to the station’s design strengthens the creepiness of what’s going on. You’ll spend a lot of time searching the environment for information to help you on your way. Emails, journals, photos and audio logs will push the plot along and flesh out the rest of the crew. No Code’s attention to detail elevates the experience even further. From the graphical glitches you see as S.A.M. to the impressive architecture both inside and outside of the station. It’s simply worth the price of admission alone.
Minor faults do not detract from excellence
All that splendor aside, Observation does have a couple of weaknesses. The game trusts you to figure everything out by yourself and while it’s great that it doesn’t hold your hand, it’s really easy to get lost. Asking Emma to repeat her instructions becomes a routine exercise early on because you simply don’t know what’s expected from you. You’ll lose time figuring out what to do instead of trying to crack a puzzle. Speaking of which, most puzzles are fair, but the more challenging ones do obstruct your progression in the game if you can’t figure them out on your own. Last but not least, the nature of the game does hamper its emotional impact. The relationship between Emma and S.A.M. is fascinating, but mostly one-sided because you are playing an artificial intelligence who is more of an observer than an actual participant.
While Observation isn’t perfect, developer No Code has managed to create something truly unique. It’s a word that’s used way too often, but I’ve never played anything quite like it. Some will find the gameplay a little restrictive or the lack of handholding frustrating, but the challenging puzzles and compelling narrative create an unforgettable experience. If you favor a good thrilling story with replay value then you shouldn’t miss out on Observation.
Compelling narrative, unique experience and challenging puzzles.
Gameplay can be a little restrictive and unclear.