Review – Observation
My initial thought when playing No Code’s sci-fi thriller, Observation, was that I was going to be in for an experience. Actually, this isn’t true. My first thought was something like, “This is a Devolver game??” And if I am being completely honest, my second thought was along the lines of: “Hey!! This isn’t in PSVR?!” But my third thought? My third thought was definitely that Observation was going to be an amazing experience.
The answer to, “This is a Devolver game??” becomes more obvious with the more you know about both No Code and Devolver Digital. Devolver, to me, has always had an anti-establishment feel to them. Rather than accept what games are becoming, they seem to celebrate what games have been. No Code, developers of The House Abandon (2016) and Untold Stories (2017) on PC are no different. What stands out in those titles, and Observation, is that No Code understands that “walking sims” are meant to be an evolution and/or homage to text-based gaming. It isn’t simply a visual novel told by wandering aimlessly and coming across audio diaries. Choice, or belief of, and action are still core.
This brings us to my second, well, observation. And yes, as much as it shames me, that pun was unfortunately intended. Observation is NOT a PSVR title. Please know this if it’s a reason you are interested in purchasing. We initially saw Observation during PlayStation’s first State of Play this March. Maybe it was because that State of Play was so PSVR-centered, or maybe it was because it was sandwiched between Blood and Truth and Five Nights at Freddy’s VR: Help Wanted. For whatever reason, every game site picked up and reported on Observation being a PS4 and PSVR title. Looking back, neither Sony nor Devolver Digital ever listed it as such. And after playing Observation, I feel this makes sense. It wouldn’t work as a VR title without some game design changes.
As for that third thought, I am happy to report that it was entirely on the money. Observation is a sci-fi space thriller with a twist. The twist is that the characters are actually the AI. While the AI is you, the player. I thought that this mechanic, of being the playable character but also truly just an assistant and a tool for the protagonist, was going to be a tough challenge for No Code. However, they make it work seamlessly. You play as S.A.M., the artificial intelligence aboard the space station. It is your job to be exactly what you are built for: To give systems status reports, investigate the compartments of the station, and to activate controls. Observation sets this tone very early on, your first action being to run a basic voice analysis and then to check on ship integrity and concerns.
But it is through your lens that the entirety of the game is played. You cycle through the station’s camera system, assisting Dr. Emma Fisher in unraveling the mystery of what happened aboard the station and to its crew. At times, to give you more of a conventional movement mechanic, you take possession of a Sphere: an orb-like remote control camera system that is propelled by bursts of carbon dioxide.
Observation‘s gameplay is what really impressed me the most. How do you reinvent a walking sim where you are literally nothing but a camera lens? That isn’t what No Code does. Instead, Observation evolves upon the concepts of text-based gaming. I never felt like a simple observer. I always felt like I was involved in each step. Digital diaries are still a thing, but accessing them makes much more sense then simply finding them on a park bench. Since all recordings would be going through you already, you are just able to access more and more of your core memory as they become available.
Toss in camera and Sphere exploration, controlling ship functions, puzzles, finding clues, reporting them back, and you’ll realize that you are always involved in the game. Nothing is too impossible to figure out, but nothing holds your hand either. There is a mystery and you are figuring it out, not just reading about it. All the puzzles lend to the immersion that you are the space station. They feel perfectly understandable and sensible. And while the game may tell you where to go or what to do, it won’t tell you how; Observation isn’t meant to be a difficult game, it is meant to be an immersive one.
Observation is beautiful. Yes, most everything you see is scripted and most interactions are static, but you play what is there, not what isn’t. I love the use of different camera qualities as you cycle through basic 12-bit lenses, static CCTV cameras, or your Sphere, adding in the occasional distortion in quality each time you bump something or switch between objects. When floating outside of the station, many times I would lose track of my objective as I’d just look around and wander through the emptiness of space.
The use of sound is very well done to make the most out of its environment in a cinematic sense, adding the steady and subtle intensity of background effects or the removal of them entirely. And the voice acting is better than just “good”. These games are almost always defined by the connection between two characters, and Observation is no exception to the rule. The connection between Dr. Fisher and S.A.M. is realistic and relatable. Mechanical at first, granted, but it develops over time, almost always with an uneasy and an anxious tension in the air.
I honestly can’t find much else to critique on Observation. What they do, they do masterfully. However, if you are not a fan of walking simulators, I admit that this game won’t do enough to cause you to dismiss those preconceptions. In the end, at about five hours, maybe less, of gameplay, Observation falls into the “digital experience” category. If you are a fan of a developer that understands that this is an evolution of a text-based experience, not a continuation of what we have grown to accept as a first-person experience, then Observation succeeds in so many aspects.
It does play out as a scripted cinematic experience and most interactions are static, but it is all presented beautifully.
Exploring the ship, looking for clues, running diagnostics: you are always kept involved in the gameplay of the story.
Excellent cinematic quality. Hits the right beats on when to push forward and when to pull back.
Fun Factor: 8.5
The game always stays intriguing and finds new ways to keep you immersed in its story.
Final Verdict: 8.5
Observation is available now on PS4 and PC.
Reviewed on PS4 and PS4 Pro.
A copy of Observation was provided by the publisher.