Observation is one of the most unique games I’ve played in 2019. The developers, No Code, previously made their debut with the experimental Stories Untold back in 2017. Stories Untold was a horror game visually inspired by 80’s film tapestries and constructed by a number of industry veterans to boot. The title required players to unearth narrative beats through a variety of unprecedented gameplay situations. For example, its most popular section required the play-through of a text adventure simulated on an old computer. No Code has returned with a game that while being more controller-friendly, retains the same imagination and ingenuity they had proven themselves prior.
While playing this cinematic and thrilling science-fiction mystery, you have the uncommon opportunity to play as the protagonist Sam. As he helps Emma Fisher find the crew to the Observation (the aptly named Space Shuttle in which the game takes place), it’s revealed that Sam is an advanced operating system with an incredibly humanlike AI. Sam is only as smart as the player, with even a few times in my playthrough Emma begrudgingly scolding me for ignoring her commands. Importantly, he’s an advanced enough artificial intelligence that is characterized and can be understood more than other game’s self-insert protagonists made of flesh and bone.
Dude, Where’s my Crew?
Each of the puzzles In Observation, prevent themselves from seeming arbitrary since context is given to each of the tasks. At some points, you’re attempting to open hatches with grid-based schematics in a memory-based puzzle. Other times, you’re relaying the status of individual sections of the station upon given the command like an Amazon Alexa device. There’s even a visual-based exercise early in the game that requires you to utilize the camera module system to locate a fire on the station for Emma for put out. These objectives never feel overbearing, since the developers at No Code have properly created a variety of different situations so the puzzles are continuously fresh and interesting.
Within my seven-hour playthrough, the gameplay and puzzles felt best compared to point & click adventure games. While unique and interesting, they serve to push the narrative forward primarily. Which means that the story told with Observation is the dominant aspect when enjoying the game. This narrative primarily serves as a suspenseful mystery. What makes this mystery engrossing to solve, is an atmosphere which is methodically constructed.
While the looming aspects of sound design play into the claustrophobic ambiance that comes with traversing the space station and the surrounding areas, it’s the engrossing voice acting performances from Emma and Sam that should be praised primarily. The performances are held together by a script full of cosmic revelations that are paced in a calculated way to maintain a captivating story.
A(I)dventures in Babysitting
As well, the visual density found within the set-dressing of the space station should also be addressed when considering Observation’s overbearing atmosphere. Living quarters are adorned with family photos while audio logs serve as optional narrative exposition. The clutter in the space station provided a sense that this place was lived-in, and the number of objects scattered in the chambers helped tell the story that No Code was tackling effectively. The use of lighting was also effective in contributing to this, for an independent team it was certainly impressive to see how much they were able to squeeze out of both the base PlayStation 4 and the PlayStation 4 Pro. Yet, while the technological facets are effectively flexing No Code’s AAA pedigree, there were points where I felt frustrated in where my next objective would be.
Lost in Space
In one situation, while I was trying to return to the shuttle after a spacewalk with the spherical drone you’re able to control. I was unable to find a way to get back inside. Upon asking my companion Emma, I was instructed to go to EAS 3 to open a hatch. Instead, I was meant to go back to EAS 11 to find the hatch I had first emerged. While I am certainly humble enough to state that this might just be me simply not paying enough attention, the in-game hint system certainly didn’t help.
This was one of many situations where the wind was taken out of my sails as I attempted to figure out what to do next. Being stonewalled by the various gameplay systems in place is a frustrating dilemma. While it’s fun and exciting to figure out the puzzles for yourself, there was also one instance I experienced which was game-breaking and required me to restart after already investing a handful of hours.
The Gravity of a good story
While I fully assume that this is currently being worked on by No Code, who was nothing but helpful and sympathetic to the glitch I was experiencing. I want to make note that now having finished the game, among these issues that I experienced, the story is good enough to let me forgive these issues. Making adventure games with a lot of variables is hard, but telling a captivating story is even harder. No Code succeeded in executing a story that not only feels unique to the medium but one that’s instantly recommendable to those that care about video games as a tool for good storytelling.
Overall, Observation executes what No Code sets out to do. Creating an atmospheric narrative adventure game that is different than any other title that’s currently out. While I may have had some slight hang-ups with the design of the game, I can forgive this since it’s the story is worthy of being consumed. While portraying its narrative queries of humanity and the humanity we are creating with technology, it has forced me to ask questions I had never considered before. Which isn’t that what good stories are supposed to do?