Observation Review - Space Madness

5/5

In Observation you play as SAM (Systems Administration and Maintenance), the AI assistant of a space station that represents the joint efforts of Europe, China, and Russia. Your abilities are limited by your absence of a corporeal form–for most of the game you’re controlling the cameras dotted around the station and interacting with any computers or digital panels within their range of vision. You have access to a station map that expands over time, and you’re able to jump between cameras across the entire ship at will. It might sound like a limiting conceit, but Observation uses your unique position of omniscient claustrophobia to craft a compelling, creepy, and extremely original narrative experience.

The year is 2026, and you’re on the station with Emma Fisher, a European crew member who awakens at the game’s beginning to find that she has no contact with the rest of her crew on board. It’s immediately clear that something catastrophic has happened; the station is no longer in Earth’s orbit, and no-one is answering her attempts at communication. To say much more would be to spoil elements of a plot that are best left to surprise you–the first major twist happens within about 20 minutes. Suffice it to say that Observation’s narrative unfurls slowly across the entire length of the game, with its mysteries growing all the more complicated and your sense of dread deepening as the game goes on.

Observation absolutely nails its distinct lo-fi, sci-fi aesthetic. The cameras crackle and jump as you shift between them, and the stylistic film grain and distortion over every visual emphasizes your slight removal from the reality of the situation Emma is facing. Like many science fiction works of the last forty years, Observation is indebted to Ridley Scott’s Alien–some of the tech aboard the space station feel like antiquated products of a decade long past. This aesthetic, paired with the game’s too-near future setting, gives Observation the pleasant feeling of an uncovered classic or remake of an ambitious, older piece of work. SAM is far and away the most advanced piece of technology on the station, and even when you load up your own system menu (which lets you view the map, check system alerts, and perform other functions that unlock during the game) you’re treated to some pleasantly analog and retro buzzing and whirring sound effects.

You experience most of the game through the slow panning and zooming cameras, an effective tool at creating a creeping sense of tension, although the occasional cutscene is used to better capture action at a crucial moment. It’s not about jump scares or personally being in danger; again, to say too much more would be to spoil the game’s clever pacing, but it’s a game that’s incredibly effective at building dread more than overt terror.

The actual gameplay is, for the most part, pretty simple. You need to explore the ship as much as you can from your various vantage points, scanning every document and inspecting every laptop you encounter, opening and shutting hatch doors, and interacting with the station’s equipment. The bulk of the puzzles boil down to figuring out how to operate SAM’s interface, finding schematics to help you operate certain programs, and learning the necessary procedures for the instructions you are given.