Observation is a sci-fi thriller uncovering what happened to Dr. Emma Fisher, and the crew of her mission, through the lens of the station’s artificial intelligence S.A.M.
Kezia Burrows, Anthony Howell, Jon McKellan, Elspeth Eastman, J.M. Specht, Sherry Wong, Rhashan Stone, Claire Andreadis
Developer: No Code
Written & Directed by: Jon McKellan
Lead Programmer: Oliver Boyce
Lead Designer: Graeme McKellan
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PC, PS4 (reviewed on a PS4 Pro)
“No one can hear you scream in space” Observation subtly whispers in its opening minutes as it presents a gloomy abandoned space-station to you. Aesthetically giving off both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Alien franchise vibes, it’s quick to be suckered into thinking you know what kind of ride you’re in for, but aboard the Observation Station, all is not as it seems and this is sure to be one of 2019’s wildest rides.
In an interesting change of pace for the genre, Observation has you controlling the Observation Station’s A.I called SAM. Dr. Emma Fisher, seemingly the only one left on the once busy station, is the one to switch you back on and seek your help in figuring out what’s going on. Why did the stations’ systems drop out? What happened to the rest of the crew and where are they? In the blink of an eye it seems everything changed, but how is that possible?
As the stations AI, you have access to the ship’s security camera systems, which can include several camera angles in one room. Eventually, you also get a sphere ‘body’ which you can move about with. Your first tasks are very simple with instructions to find and hack a computer or two to turn a system back on or open a locked door to help Emma traverse the station, but of course, as the game progresses the systems and puzzles become increasingly more interesting. Hacking doors, for example, requires finding a blueprint and then copying, manually, a certain path-drawing into the hack screen. This means either memorising the pattern, taking a picture on your phone, or bringing out some old-fashioned pen and paper. Observation had me doing a bit of pen and paper jotting, and if you’re like me and doubt what you read the second you flick away from a screen you will too. Once I rolled credits on Observation I had a page of notes in front of me including security squiggles, random shapes to remember and information I thought was going to be important but wasn’t.
One of the puzzles was a little obtuse for me, but I’m admittedly not the best puzzle genre guy. I didn’t get frustrated at any of the puzzles though, which is the most important thing, and it's hard to when at several points the game will adapt to you failing a puzzle, which was also great and something different.
Each room you scour inside the Observation Station is littered with little details and the way the entire station itself has been designed is a fantastic sci-fi spectacle. The game is set in 2026 and some details of the station’s creation open some interesting points of discussion for predicting the future of the world as well. It's the design of the station itself paired with the freedom you have to explore and get to know it that makes Observation stand out from what, at first, could look like a typical point-and-click story based puzzler. You truly feel like you’re a part of the station and the station truly feels like part of the future.
The one thing I found utterly infuriating however was controlling the sphere ‘body’ you can inhabit and float around inside the station. You’re constantly losing the position of where you are, flipping upside down and struggling to make it to where you need to go. Luckily you don’t have to use the sphere much unless you do some extra exploring, but there is a section near the end of the game that requires it and I wanted to pick that sphere up and dropkick it out into space out of frustration.
I also must mention that the game did freeze on me on two separate and completely unrelated occasions. Reloading from the title screen fixed the problem both times, but I had to re-play a ten-minute section on both accounts as well.
A finer detail that sells the whole package and had me in awe constantly at how well it was implemented is the amazing UI work for the various screens you’ll have to access throughout the game. They all feel authentic for the station, and not a menu built like a video game object or menu, which further pulls you into the story Observation is trying to tell.
The game also features an eerie and fitting soundtrack with work from both Omar Khan, who worked on No Code’s previous game, Stories Untold (also fantastic), and Robin Finck, a frequent collaborator of Trent Reznor.
Emma is voiced by Kezia Burrows who with a strong performance brings the project to life as the only human interaction you have. It’s a nuanced performance that goes on a journey, but I just really wished the team at No Code had more money for motion-capture. Although Emma does look decent, a much more eloquently animated mocap performance would have really done Burrow’s performance more justice and added the cherry on the top of this thrilling stories cake.
I’m still thinking about the story of Observation days after finishing it. I have severe whiplash from the number of head-swings I did following Observation’s insane plot that is full of twists and turns galore. Leaving nothing to chance either, it sets up its first big WTF moment within the first thirty-to-sixty minutes and then plays an opening credits sequence that would have you believe you just tuned into a Netflix series. Several times too, Observation will end a scene like the end of an episode, which makes the whole experience, credits and all, feel like a six-hour series.
Jon McKellan, the creative director at No Code, is quickly becoming one of my must watch developers. Between Observation and Stories Untold he’s creating some of the most interesting games of the last couple years and I can’t wait to see what he does next, particularly if he’s given a bigger piggy bank to play with.
Observation will undoubtedly make a lot of best of 2019 lists. Its unique design and mesh of a thrilling space station story that’s bound to get the heart racing and well-implemented puzzles make it a standout. It may be too slow paced for some, but it wears its inspirations somewhat proudly on that front. For those invested in the story, it gets crazy and crazier and is well worth seeing through till the end.
(Observation code provided for review)