Observation Review: The True Terror Of Deep Space

A deeply atmospheric sci-fi title with a unique premise and very distinct set-up.
8.5
  • Playstation 4
  • Windows
  • Puzzle
2019-05-21
Observation Title Card
Observation plays very much like an old sci-fi film, and even comes with its own opening credits. No Code

(Review is as spoiler-free as possible, however, some of the phots may reveal points later on in the story).

I have always been fond of the space horror genre, especially in movies. There’s something so unspeakably terrifying about finding yourself at the mercy of someone or something in the unending depths of space, where there’s no one to hear you… well, you know how the quote goes. At the same time, the vastness of it all makes you feel insignificant, and lets you know just how cruel the universe actually is.

That said, it’s also very hard to do space horror right, at least for me. It has to toe the line between realism and exaggeration just right; give it too much realism and it’ll bore everyone to death, exaggerate it too much and it loses its kick. It’s a very hard balancing act that will only work if every core element present is done properly, the less clichés the better.

Observation is not a space horror movie. It’s not even really a space horror game in the traditional sense. I just felt it’s apt to call it one, since there’s nothing I can remotely compare it to in either visual or interactive media. Observation is terrifying, to an almost existential level, and it’s set in space, so yes. Maybe it is a space horror video game. Sure enough, you’ll also probably hear comparisons to Alien Isolation or SOMA every once in a while, but it’s so distinct and unashamedly different that it’s almost maddening to think of something to compare it to. For the longest time that I’ve been playing video games, I have never come across such a title that I can’t compare with anything else.

Story and themes

Observation Emma
Observation's story focuses on Emma Fisher, the station's doctor who suddenly finds herself alone following a massive interference. Photo: No Code

Observation follows the story of the crew of the Observation low-orbit space station, a multinational group of six cosmonauts charged with a mission they themselves aren’t really aware of. However, most of the story focuses on the seemingly sole survivor Dr. Emma Fisher, the doctor-on-call for the Observation. Unlike other horror titles, where you play as one of the human characters trying to survive the terror that lurks and hunts them, Observation sees you playing as SAM, the ship’s AI. SAM stands for Security and Maintenance, and as such is tasked with critical work aboard the Observation, such as controlling most of the life support functions and keeping the crew safe.

In Observation several critical events cause SAM’s systems to become heavily corrupt. After the incident, Dr. Fisher is shown to be the only human alive, and as such it is up to players to figure out what happened, save whichever crew remains alive and escape this nightmare. To add to this, SAM itself is experiencing changes within its programming, and its purposes may not be entirely for the benefit of the human hosts.

Observation is a smartly-written existential space horror, like Alien or 2001: A Space Odyssey for video games. That does not mean that the story is in any way similar to those, however; it’s an incredibly unique take on the terror of deep space, away from our planet and thrust into the unknown. It’s so good at throwing you off in commendable ways, and keeping you hooked on things that don’t feel like a reuse of the tropes you see in sci-fi. If you’re a big science fiction nut, you’ll find a lot of things to love about Observation.

Observation Atmosphere
There's a general sense of unease lurking in every corridor of the space station, which is great for building up tension. Photo: No Code

The atmosphere is simple, yet very effective. A huge chunk of the narrative you’ll actually find in the background, and Observation prods you to observe, rather than actively feed you the story. It’s pretty barebones if you bore easily, as you will miss a lot of snippets of what’s actually going on, but if you do take the time to engross yourself, the pay-off is pretty big.

The setting is very interesting as well. Observation takes place sometime in 2024, yet by the looks of the technology, there’s a sense of retrofuturism. I’m inclined to think that they modeled this after Alien, where most of the design is modeled to show what the future would look like from a late 70s to early 80s standpoint. Observation does this as well, but we get a setting closer to late 90s to early 00s. It’s certainly unique, and that gives it this sort of ‘lost timeline’ feel, almost like it’s set in a timeline different from our own.

Observation Saturn
Observation primarily deals with existential dread and the feeling of insignificance against the greater universe. Photo: No Code

Observation is very subtle in its themes, often asking you to dig deep into what everything means, but not too much that you’re interpreting it for yourself. While playing through it I felt nothing but existential dread and insignificance in the greater scheme of things. There are no jump scares, there’s no cheap shocks or overly grotesque horrors – it’s mostly just that terrible feeling of coming to the realization of just how alone we are in the face of the unknown. In the same vein, it also shows you how cold, unfeeling, and incredibly uncaring this great unknown is to our own plights; the worst thing about a tragedy in space is not the act itself, but the fact that set against the backdrop of nothingness, it echoes into forever.

The real stunner of the story is how well it is translated through the eyes of an impartial observer; SAM the AI just does as it’s told, as long as it’s within the bounds of its programming. This is a unique way to look into a tale, as while there’s no actual stakes for you besides your purpose, you’re beholden to see it through. You always feel like SAM knows more than it lets on. As you’re only playing as the AI, however, you cannot know for sure. It’s an incredibly unique and singular concept that I think was the game’s main strength, disregarding the nerve-wracking story and cliché-free plot.

Gameplay and level design

Observation SAMOS
Observation has several unique gameplay mechanics, such as the SAMOS, which acts like the map for the station. Photo: No Code

Observation’s core gameplay is simple enough – you have access to a set of tools similar to what a program will have, although this time, you’re on the receiving end of commands. It’s simple enough to get while still offering a satisfying variety and intuitiveness, and enjoyable enough to let the narrative play on without risk of boredom or annoyance. As SAM, you can jump between the ship’s different cameras and link to various hardware found within each section. You can also scan various documents, which will help you piece together the backstory of what happened to the Observation.

Observation Sphere
You can access areas that cannot be reached by cameras with the use of the Sphere, which allows SAM to travel physically within the station. Photo: No Code

The crew has also developed a spherical automaton, which allows SAM to navigate the ship physically and influence areas that are not covered by the station’s cameras. In the AI’s built-in operating system, called SAMOS, you can check the whole system network of the ship laid out as a map, which lets you jump between ship sections through the cameras. SAM also has a way to talk to Emma with the use of a response system, which you can bring up with almost every interface.

Throughout Observation, SAM, with the guidance of Fisher, will do various tasks critical to the survival of the doctor, as well as try to discover who or what was behind the interference that cause the entirety of the ship's crew to go missing. You achieve this by doing most of the ship’s repairs, as well as finding clues to what the true purpose of Observation’s mission was.

Observation Puzzles
Observation has several different puzzles, some of which can only be done with the correct schematics. Photo: No Code

There’s enough variety in the tasks you’re given to keep everything fresh, and I admire the amount of technicality mixed with them as well. The tasks also surprisingly challenging, mostly due to the fact that there’s minimal hand holding. Observation’s puzzles are non conventional, going from A to D, with the letters in between not supplied to you. You have to take cues from the background, as well as technical details within puzzles in order to get the right solutions. If you ever want to get an idea of what living as a computer is like, this is probably the closest you’ll get.

Expanding on Observation’s difficulty, I’d say that it borders on unforgiving but is certainly doable. I sometimes spent more than half an hour at a single problem before it finally clicked, which can get pretty frustrating for some.

The station itself can be freely explored during certain sections of the Observation. During these sections, players can try and build up SAM’s memory once again following its corruption. The halls are claustrophobic, adding an immensely terrifying level of atmosphere to the game. Observation is pretty expansive, too, although not too big that it becomes repetitive. There are four main sections of the station, each one named for the country that they represent, much like a true international space station.

I’d also like to point out that this game works a hundred times better on a controller. The camera keyboard movement every time you use a camera is absolutely horrendous, and heightening the sensitivity does nothing. Using joysticks on a controller feels better in my opinion, but I do hope they fix the WASD movement for the station’s cameras in the future.

Characters and voice acting

Observation Characters
Observation relies on just two characters and their intricate relationship: the AI SAM and Dr. Emma Fisher. Photo: No Code

Throughout the game, most of your interactions will only be relegated to SAM and Fisher. That doesn’t mean that Observation has poor characterization, however. I must say that it’s pretty unusual as characterizations go, though, as you have to relate to Fisher in order to sympathize, and SAM is nothing but lines of code made for the singular purpose of securing and maintaining the sattelite. The AI can seem cold and unfeeling at times, and there is a general aura that SAM is an inanimate observer to Emma’s situation.

Regardless, the story is carried by this feeling of detachment, almost as if you are lines of code yourself. Fisher's plight is as human as it comes, but you as SAM are left to wonder the existential meaning. It’s weird, but in an endearing kind of way that grows on you as you play. Interactions are incredibly one-sided; on one end you have Fisher, who is terrified about her situation, and on the other you have SAM. You can see how mechanical it is. At times I actually wondered if the story broke my brain, because it raised so many questions regarding its intricacy.

At any rate, the voice acting did them both absolute justice. Fisher is quite believable as a scientist who thinks she has no reason to be there, but is completely unaware of her predicament. Likewise, SAM’s voice actor is this monotonous, unhuman tone, a disembodied voice without any real feeling. Every time SAM spoke, I found the hairs at the back of my neck standing up. There’s something incredibly sinister in the fact that Fisher finds an ally in a machine that does not have any sort of emotional processing, and their interaction throughout the game is a wonder.

Art and sound design

Observation Art
Observation features a very sterile and clean-looking art design, inspired by early 90s tech and fused with a futuristic feel. Photo: No Code

Observation boasts a very clean and sterile art design, which it uses to its advantage in telling a story within the story itself. The various interfaces you encounter in the station have a neat aesthetic as well, mixing some early millennium designs into its vision of a near future. The big bulky camcorders acting as the ship’s eyes were a really nice touch, and reminds me of those old VHS recorders back in the late 90s.

Nothing can top the experience of doing space walks though, which SAM has to do in some sections of the game. In the vast emptiness of space, you find beauty mixed with dread, as you see the station floating across nothingness. The point that the Observation hovers above a planet is one of the most aesthetically pleasing as well, with the nice view really contrasting with the dark reaches of space.

The animations are also well done, if a bit unsettling. You only get to see these every once in a while, during moments in the game where Fisher is talking without her helmet, but I must say something about her animations put me off. It’s not really ugly so much as it crosses the threshold to uncanny valley territory. Other than that, most of the game is golden in its animations. You’ll see objects floating gracefully in the station’s zero gravity from time to time, which just adds to the tension of finding yourself alone with an AI in the depths of space. I also liked the nice little touches of the sphere’s built-in camera going wonky every time you hit something, which shows incredible attention to detail.

The music and overall sound design are standouts as well. The electronic noises mixed into this foreboding theme makes you feel like you’re being watched at all times by something unspeakably sinister. Play it with a headset for the full effect to kick in, and you’ll find yourself paranoid within an hour or two.

Stability and bugs

I played Observation on a PC, and while it was very good graphically, there were a few very annoying bugs here and there. There were more than a few instances of Emma glitching out of her animations whenever she would cross the various sections of the station and when you followed her in the SAM sphere. What’s worse is that this also happens during the game’s ending, which is supposed to be this big, serious climax, only it takes me out of it because Emma keeps clipping through everything.

There’s also instances of minor soft-locks occurring, which thankfully can be solved with reloads instead of forcing players to replay the whole game. In my opinion, these could’ve been solved easily if the developers made them into cutscenes instead, as clearly the sequence in question is supposed to be scripted; moving away from the set path will glitch your game and you have to reload the game through the Main Menu.

Overall

Observation Overall
Observation captures a very distinct and unique feel, one you can only get to experience at the very edge of nothingness. Photo: No Code

Observation is an amazingly crafted, smartly written, and incredibly unique title that holds its own through intelligent use of its singularly distinct concept. I played it through to the end in one sitting, which took me about seven to eight hours. This is an achievement, considering I usually need at least two game sessions to finish something that length. It boasts one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever encountered in a video game, presenting the terror of an existential threat that’s ever looming and ever present. Barring some of the bugs that can take you out of the immersion, Observation is both an incredible journey and terrifying look at what the farthest reaches of the unknown hold, through the eyes of an unfeeling machine.

(Review copy provided by Devolver Digital; review of the game is based on seven to eight hours of playtime).

REVIEW SUMMARY
Observation
8.5
Observation Review - The True Terror Of Deep Space
An amazing, unique and genuinely mind-bending entry into the science-fiction genre, Observation draws on its distinct set-up to pull you into a mystery set deep in space. It's existential dread condensed into roughly six to eight hours of gameplay. Discounting the sometimes buggy levels, it has everything you could ever ask for in an original sci-fi title: an intriguing premise, a foreboding theme, and an AI player character, whose motive eludes even yourself.
  • Great set-up for the plot, no tired tropes or cliches.
  • Unique gameplay, lets you play as an all-seeing AI in charge of a station.
  • Interesting themes featuring existential horrors.
  • Cool set pieces, with a very distinct art design.
  • Incredible use of music, dark and foreboding at the same time.
  • Somewhat high learning curve for puzzles.
  • Very minimal hand-holding, somewhat niche appeal.
  • Presence of some very annoying bugs that take you out of the immersion.
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