How often have we heard this story before? What begins as a routine mission in Space with astronauts sent up to conduct experiments in zero-G goes terribly wrong, as a cascade of errors race through the processing core of Sam, the station’s AI. The twist here is that, while astronaut Emma Fisher is left stranded and forced to rely on Sam, you’re not in control of Emma, but are instead playing the part of the AI.
As Sam you are limited in what you can do. The Incident, as the event comes to be known, has left Sam with a lot of core memory loss, so its prime mission is to repair itself as well as gather information to help successfully complete Emma’s goals. As the game’s name may imply, observation is how Sam completes tasks. Dotted throughout the station are a network of cameras which can be controlled by Sam and, by extension, allow him to wirelessly connect to systems such as laptops and hatch controls. Documents can also be scanned to give a background to the crew, the station, and to upgrade Sam’s firmware so more complex tasks can be completed.
At the core of Observation is a puzzle game with much of the gameplay consisting of screens where the correct patterns has to be entered, or certain codes can be found to make progress through the plot. The puzzles themselves are relatively simple to get through, simply copying lines from schematics and selecting the correct inputs within a certain timeframe. There was one particular section that did drag on a bit, as it was less of a puzzle and more just panning across an image to find a specific code. Thankfully, the majority are designed to get be navigated quickly so the story can progress.
There’s some great moments to be found throughout the game. Sam eventually gets the ability to control camera spheres, allowing for free movement through Observation, which in turn allows access to areas that the wall cameras can’t quite see. While it’s a great and freeing tool, the sphere can be a little unwieldy at times and due to the layout of the station itself, it is very easy to get disoriented. There were a few times where I got lost even when consulting the map, and it was only toward the end where it felt like I had the station’s layout mastered. In its own way, the disorientation does help with the story as it build up the thriller aspect, especially in the more tense moments.
Observation isn’t a horror game, but there are moments with a real sense of dread. Even though you are an AI that is built into the station itself some parts make you feel as vulnerable as Emma. That’s really down to the writing and directing of the scenes, as well as the acting. Emma’s character goes through the range of emotions, from fear and sadness to fleeting moments of happiness, but through all of it you can feel her resolve to survive the situation she is in, relying on Sam as an equal to solve the problems that have befallen the station. Equal may seem like a stretch when pitting a human against a super AI, but there are a lot of instances where Sam relies on Emma to help it, just like Emma relies on Sam. Observation could have gone down the route of having the AI solve everything, but it doesn’t and is all the better for it, especially when the unknown elements start to influence you. Suffice to say that the story itself is gripping, though there are times where it feels like it is reaching the end, only for it to go on for a bit longer.
Sound plays a huge part in building the eerie atmosphere, from the groans of the station interior to the silence of Space itself. There’s little moments that stand out, like an airlock depressurising and opening with the noise decreasing in volume until there is nothing in the vacuum. The sound design is really nicely done throughout the game, as is the soundtrack, which can increase that feeling of dread as you navigate a dark part of the station looking for something. Because of how the music is implemented you’re never sure what to expect.
The lighting and visual design is another key element in affecting the mood of a scene. It can look fantastic, such as when a light streams through a window to illuminate a room with an almost blinding orange. Additional details like the camera feed becoming slightly distorted and fuzzy if the sphere bumps into something before coming back into focus shows how much fine detail the team at No Code have put into the game.