If you were to make a list of some of the best AI in movies, it's likely you'll start with HAL. It's no surprise. The creepy monotone voice and equally sinister and logical plans HAL carries out works fantastically to keep the character in your mind. However, HAL has always been seen as a villain. Many games that attempt to emulate him cast him as such. What if you played as HAL? Such is the question posed by Observation, which sees you taking control of a space station AI after a mysterious accident. Is this a station worth observing, or should you just let the computer do it?
The Observation is a space station orbiting Earth. Or, at least, it was until it mysteriously shows up in the space above Saturn. The vast majority of the crew is missing and a strange black goo seeps from the walls. You play as station AI SAM, who assists Emma, the only astronaut that can currently be found. There's only a vague idea on what's going on, but what seems definitive is that SAM is at least partially responsible. The two need to find the crew, figure out what happened, and get back to Earth.
The Cosmic Horror of Observation
If you're into weird sci-fi and cosmic horror, then Observation is going to have a plot you'll take interest in. There's always this slow droning terror. Every minute, you just know something else is going to go wrong. You're just not quite sure what. Observation just oozes atmosphere, and it's used brilliantly. The deliberate slow movements and actions only seem to add to the scary stuff. As the mystery grows deeper and the cosmic horrors become more apparent, a looming obsidian hexagon always seems to be present in places you wouldn't expect. While Observation's plot may not tie up neatly, I'm not really sure it needed to. There are more questions to be asked, more pieces that can be analyzed, more to uncover. I just keep wanting to dive back into it.When it comes to gameplay, Observation really goes hard on selling that you're the ship's AI. From the opening moments, you'll be seeing various pop-ups and informational text boxes that you can interact with. One of the first actions you have to commit to is deciding if Emma can interact with you or not through voice recognition software. How do you do this? Simply by holding the left stick to the right to fill a bar, then hitting "approve" or "decline" using a cursor. Is it difficult? Nope. But it fits the tone of the game so well. This strange busywork ends up being some of my favorite moments. If you've ever watched bars fill and screens play out strange sequences in the background of your favorite sci-fi movies and wonder what it all meant, this is the answer.
Observation's Hunt for Good Puzzles
Not to say there aren't puzzles. There will be plenty for you to think about over the course of the game. There are a few puzzles that tend to show up more often, like one that involves tracing simple "codes" into boxes by referencing various schematics found around the ship. Another I saw pop up often was stylish Simon Says-esque minigame that mostly stood out because of its impressive aesthetics. Any time you want to access an electronic object you need to quickly enter a three digit code to do so. These events seem to happen at the perfect amount, just enough so it's nice to see a familiar face while not making me tired of them.
I did, however, tire of all the pixel hunting. It's fun solving puzzles, but looking for them is Observation's weak spot. You can use a map and various cameras to look around the Observation, and eventually get a sphere that gives you free movement both in and around the station. However, figuring out what exactly you're looking for is often difficult. My first spacewalk saw me leave the station in a sphere and have to interact with one tiny hard to find panel. After that, I had to find my way back inside the station. Neither task was easy to do thanks to small objectives hidden in weird places. I came to dread having to go back outside to search for things again.
The Creepy Atmosphere of Observation
Thankfully, once I found the puzzles, things move smoothly again. There always felt like some unique curveball each puzzle provided. One had me watching a constantly changing code so I could catch and enter the correct numbers into a console. Another required combining several pieces of data I found so I could manually enter a new program into SAM's systems. It felt like most puzzles managed to fit the theme of the game well, combining the aforementioned atmosphere with clever little mechanics. There's only one exception. That was the puzzle that required scanning shadows on a planet to figure out a communication angel for sending messages. The idea works in context, but the puzzle itself is just more pixel hunting.
If I'm solving puzzles or hunting for the next one, I did always enjoy my time looking around the Observation. The space station feels much closer to the realistic NASA-styled ones rather than what you'd see in a typical sci-fi game. These spaces feel cramped and overflowing with detail in every corner. You can spend quite a bit of time learning the lives of each crew member just by looking at their bunks. There are also laptops that litter the station, and by accessing them you can find messages from the crew to other members, personal logs, or even messages home. It really helps sell the whole setting and who you're working for.
Observation Review | Final Thoughts
By the end of Observation, playing in the role of an AI easily drew me in to an impressive extent. Everything I did kept me engaged, no doubt helped along by the fantastic cosmic horror behind it all. Playing as SAM is equal parts terrifying and brilliant, and I love all the little interactions I could pull off. While I wish there was less pixel hunting, it ultimately didn't kill the game for me. Fans of adventure games or sci-fi should find plenty to love when observing Observation.
TechRaptor reviewed Observation on PlayStation 4 using a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PC via Epic Games Store.
Observation combines weird sci-fi and cosmic horror with clever adventure gameplay and amazing atmosphere.
- Thrilling Story and Setting
- Clever Gameplay Ideas
- Smart Puzzles
- Amazing Atmosphere
- Pixel Hunting
- A Couple Bad Puzzles