Observation is a game about putting yourself back together. Yourself, in this case, being an artificial intelligence whose "body" is a space station drifting in low orbit. Hey, these journeys come in all shapes and sizes.
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When you begin Observation, developed for PC and PlayStation 4 by developer No Code, your body has forgotten you, and you've forgotten it. You're rebooted as SAM, the AI onboard a station called Observation, which has had a sudden and mysterious accident. Save for one crew member, scientist Emma Fisher, everyone is missing. Most of the station is locked down; only backup power remains. What's worse, you're not where you're supposed to be. Instead of orbiting Earth, you're orbiting Saturn. And it's up to you and Emma to set things right in your drifting, space-bound form.
What follows is a mildly surreal space horror, an inspired combination of Apollo 13 and Event Horizon. The aesthetics of the station are realistic, an extrapolation of modern space tech, with a visual design—filtered through SAM's various cameras and interfaces—reminiscent of the International Space Station. It's a labyrinthine, creepy space, with nooks and crannies and locked doors hiding things you're not sure you want to find.
It's a compelling setting for a horror game, but the real draw is you: SAM; the AI itself, and the way SAM interacts with the world. Artificial intelligences have a bad wrap in science fiction, often the locus of narratives centered around technological tyranny, fictionalized madness, and allegorical stories about God. But at the same time, being an AI in a lot of these settings is to be doomed to a menial, depressing existence. AIs do favors, complete tasks, doing grunt work and operating complex machines that the organics can't be bothered with.
And that, in Observation, is largely what you do: menial tasks. You turn on engines, open doors, cycle through cameras to find specific data that your human charge needs. Most of these tasks involve finding and reconnecting your internal network to the right object on the ship—the right output system or laptop or door control to get to where you need to go and perform the function asked of you. You do this through line-of-sight, either accessing these systems via security camera or a small, movable drone you're given access to early in the game.
The space station is you, your body, the only one you've got. Playing Observation is a process of learning to understand and wield your own form.
This emphasis on simple, mechanical objectives can be frustrating, especially considering that most of them involve interpreting arcane, retro-style user interfaces. But these tasks are also essential to creating the game's distinct atmosphere, which feeds into the horror and creates a sense of intense involvement that very few games offer. As SAM, after all, the space station is you, your body, the only one you've got. Each machine you network with, each interface you hack or reconnect or power on, is another extension of your fundamental self. Most narrative games design themselves around the abilities and bodies of people—to be immersed in that player character is to feel like yourself, only digital, and maybe with superpowers or something.
But to be SAM? To be SAM is to have a body that is constantly being cobbled together, that you are rebuilding as you go. You begin the game amnesiac, isolated in a single console, and from there you practice and expand your abilities, like a stroke victim learning to talk and walk and think clearly again. Those menial tasks are the basic movements of your machine limbs. They are you flexing muscles, taking a deep breath, wiggling your big toe. Playing Observation is a process of learning to understand and wield your own form.
That sense of embodiment, then, heightens the horror and provokes feelings of protectiveness toward the game's human cast. All the events in Observation, after all, are happening inside of you, within your player character's body. It's the feeling of illness, of knowing that some sort of organ inside you is malfunctioning. And Observation then gives you the rare ability to reach inside your gut and fiddle with it yourself. Like those episodes of The Magic School Bus when the children shrank and dove into one of their peer's bodies, or a Philip K. Dick twist on Jules Verne.
What emerges from this conceit is a horror game that's all about our relationships to our bodies, told in a slant way. The real terror of Observation isn't the fear of the unknown out there in space. It's the fear of losing control of yourself and being made a passenger in your own body. Observation finds that fear and grabs it, holding it with a death grip until the credits roll.
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