I’ve decided that heading to space isn’t all fun and games. Whenever I’ve watched any film or played any game set in bleak space there is always some nightmare lurking around the corner. Whether it’s a spaceship becoming a mechanical wreck, falling apart around our eyes, some kind of alien being stalking and killing the crew members, or the chance of the ship’s AI going absolutely bonkers, singing nursery rhymes while jettisoning crew members into deep space, a catastrophe is always on the horizon. But in Observation, instead of playing the part of a space survivor you actually take on the role of the ship’s computer. The question is, are you the one about to cause the next space disaster or are you just trying to help?
Observation starts proceedings in the middle of an emergency on a space station somewhere in orbit above the Earth. You play as the ship’s almighty AI, SAM – System Administration & Maintenance – who controls the whole space station and the welfare of the crew. An astronaut called Emma Fisher seems to be the only crew member left on the ship – at least of those that you are in direct communication with – and it’s her who is the first person you see. She takes you gently through various systems checks and how you come to operate as an AI, all played out via a nicely paced tutorial. A message keeps flashing across your HUD: “BRING HER TO ME” – but who is sending it? Do they mean Emma? Before you can answer that question the whole space station has been mysteriously transported to orbit a different planet. It is here where Observation truly begins.
The story that is then brought together is a brilliant one; borrowing slightly from a hundred different movies like 2001 and Interstellar. Thankfully it is a completely original idea that delivers in spades from start to finish. The writing is extremely good and the development team have delivered great dialogue and characterisation. Every character you meet is well rounded and even those you don’t – but hear messages read from a laptop – feel complete and real. The story itself examines pretty high subjects and weighty notions, but also constantly reminds you that space is a mighty dangerous place. Even though as an AI you can’t die, you feel an omnipotent responsibility for the welfare of the station and its crew.
The gameplay is very unique, so much so that I don’t think I’ve played anything like Observation before. Throughout, you control the AI by using the on-board cameras and all the different modules on the space station. You can switch between camera feeds in a module to gain different access to viewpoints of a room, and from there you are able to zoom in to select and interact with objects. On the simplest level, this will see you pinpointing in on a document that might hold a password to a laptop, or you could zoom in to discover some hatch controls, opening the way for Emma to move through. But it’s not as simple as this, because Observation has a massive focus on numerous puzzles.
The puzzles involved are another element where the development team has excelled. The range of AI-based tests is always interesting; never dull nor repetitive. It makes you feel like you are part of the AI without having to write code. You have to unlock clamps to separate modules, check the whereabouts of the crew and their health status, locate signal broadcasts on a star map and accept incoming broadcasts while decoding them. It’s so hard to describe all the things you have to do, but all are innovative and easy to use.
You don’t just stay in the central AI moving around computer screens and cameras though. In Observation you also get to control spheres that you download into, moving around the space station and into outer space on a spacewalk. I personally found these sections, especially those set out in space, a bit awkward and disorientating. Not knowing what is up and down got to me after a while, and this brought about a bit of frustration to Observation.
However, the visual design of the game is spot on; brilliantly realised in the space station itself, and detailed in terms of interfaces and the documentation types found laying around. The actual crew character’s faces are not as highly expressive as some Triple-A games, but still look good enough. It all has a bit of a film-style to the visuals, expressed brilliantly in the very exciting opening credits and through a couple of impressive set pieces.
Observation’s soundtrack and effects reinforce the game’s film credentials with a confident and assured piece of sound excellence. It feels like some of the highest quality Hollywood audio designers have been at work here, and for me it has been one of the great highlights while playing through. The actual voice work is brilliant as well, with some superb work from Kezia Burrows playing Emma and Anthony Howell as the voice of SAM; there is commitment to every moment and the results are well worth their amazing effort.
This 6-to-8-hour game is a perfect indie title, especially when you take into account the low price compared to the amount of production that has gone into every molecule of it. The story is fantastic and works beautifully from beginning to end, and the concept and AI interface gameplay ensure that Observation on Xbox One is the most unique thing I’ve played for a long while. I’ll admit to not enjoying the sphere elements quite so much, and I hate the disorientation found in the spacewalk sections, but neither of those manage to dispel the pleasure I have for the rest of the game. Over and out.