The space thriller may have been done to death in film, but it doesn’t mean that games are ready to step away from the genre any time soon. Observation wears its influences proudly, from the claustrophobia of Alien to the sinister nature of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But it also throws in a few curveballs along the way to subvert expectations — something sorely needed, since without them Observation would ultimately be a frustrating series of navigation puzzles.
In 2026, Emma Fisher and the crew of the space station Observation experience an event which transports them from their home location to the orbit of Saturn. How and why you arrive there forms the basis of the mystery, but your task is to help Emma locate the rest of the crew and find out who survived. To do this, you’ll take control of S.A.M., the onboard AI who bears more than a passing resemblance to HAL 9000.
S.A.M’s abilities amount to basic camera switching and device activation to begin with. On Emma’s prompting, you’ll need to locate various terminals to restore power in the arms of the station and activate other controls such as the crew locator to try and track down your colleagues. The mechanics for doing this are initially straightforward: usually a series of Simple Simon-like prompts or a combination of holding buttons and manipulating thumbsticks to make gauges move to the right level. It’s cleverly hosted beneath a semi-retro interface with just enough manual oomph involved to make you feel like you’re making a difference as a player, rather than just hitting X to proceed.
Later on, S.A.M. is able to transfer its consciousness to spheres which let you explore your surroundings by gently venting gas to propel you through the hubs. Emma will instruct you to move to specific areas to perform tasks, which will take you through living quarters, technical decks and other modules in your search for the truth. The feel of the station is absolutely brilliant. It has a realism to its clinical desks and floating ephemera which continues the excellent work that Jon McKellan did in Alien: Isolation. Voice acting from all parties is superb, especially Kezia Burrows as Emma, which compensates for the slightly shonkier lip syncing and dead-eyed stares of the character models. The claustrophobia of the indoor space lends even more urgency to situations which require speedier movement, though this is usually a facade — such as when a fire breaks out on the station at the very beginning.
As the hours tick on, you’ll start to realise that this is a key criticism of Observation. When you scratch the veneer, what lies beneath feels shallow. There is the illusion of binary dialogue choices, but they arrive at the same conclusion. The various hubs and arms of the space station are cluttered with objects, but ninety-five percent of them cannot be interacted with, leaving you feeling less like you’re part of a living, breathing space station and more like you’re floating through a zero-gravity rummage sale. What’s worse is the game breaking its own rules regarding what you can and cannot interact with at any point. Some laptops can be connected to; others are just highlighted but unusable, like floating red herrings. Most of these provide background to the plot and its crew but the writing is often technical and surprisingly flat. Other systems are more intrinsically linked to progress, but when the commands flash up stating that you can use them — such as a third of the way in when I was trying to set up a specific device — clicking the relevant prompt does nothing. I wasn’t told why this is the case and it’s only by trial and error that I found I needed to complete some other steps first before the original equipment will let you interact with it.
This is repeated in the navigation of the station. Moving between modules is fine when S.A.M. has an onboard map to let you see exactly where you are, but when that map goes offline — as it does for half of the game — you’re reliant on the sphere’s torch and a lot of toing and froing to work out where the hell you need to go. While the lack of gravity might make for visually interesting movement, actually trying to locate a specific hub among four different arms of the station is ridiculously frustrating. But even that pales in comparison to a space walk. Navigating the sphere around the outside of Observation in order to locate a panel on which to perform repairs took almost half an hour. Thanks to poor signposting and a dizzying viewpoint which span the screen all over the place as I desperately tried to boost to where I needed to go, it was only by pure luck that I stumbled upon my destination. The later sections inside are similarly annoying, but thankfully a little more linear as paths are blocked off. Even so, there is a lack of direction in S.A.M.’s controls which saps the feeling of progress. For every interesting minigame that unlocks a cutscene, there are twenty minutes of dull wandering through the station. There are a few twists that may make the price of entry worthwhile for hard sci-fi fans, but the ending is likely to leave many players unsatisfied.
Strip away the glossy aesthetic and you’re left with a series of puzzles, some interesting, many banal, tied together with a number of excellent cutscenes delivered by a capable cast. Observation is more of a thriller than a horror, and it thrives on playing with your expectations about the genre and its lineage. It’s just a shame that the vehicle for delivering those thrills — both the sphere you control, and the game itself — is so unwieldy.
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