Observation review [PC]: When a sentient AI goes bad …
It wouldn’t surprise me if the team behind sci-fi thriller Observation – were fans of movies Alien, Event Horizon and 2001 A Space Odyssey.
The game opens aboard the international space station Observation which is above Earth’s orbit after suffering a catastrophic event. The ship’s medical officer Dr Emma Fisher eventually manages to reboot the ship’s AI Sam [System Administration Maintenance] but Sam receives a strange transmission telling him to “BRING HER”. Fast forward a bit and after a second event, the Observation finds itself above Saturn, Sam’s core functions compromised and the rest of Observation’s crew missing. Emma tasks Sam with finding out what has happened.
Sam reminded me a lot of HAL 2000, the ship board AI from Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 A Space Odyssey [a movie from 1968 that most young gamers, sadly, will know nothing about]. In that movie, HAL 9000 is the sentient AI on a spaceship heading to Jupiter [there’s also a mysterious black monolith discovered by apes, but that’s a story for another day]. HAL turns rogue, responsible for uttering the chilling line “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”.
Controlling Sam, you’re initially tasked by Fisher to assess any damage the ship has suffered, accessing the on board cameras to survey for problems. Sam opens hatches, when requested, provides feedback on ship-wide alerts and can possess remotely controlled drones which give a rather satisfying degree of movement around the ship’s tight confines.
Hints of Event Horizon started to appear for me early in the game when it became clear that all wasn’t as it seemed and Sam started becoming self-aware. When the words “BRING HER” flashed on the screen and a strange floating artifact appeared, I got chills down my spine. For some reason, the Observation itself reminded me a lot of Alien’s Nostromo and while there are no jump scares and it’s not scary, Observation’s atmosphere is tense enough to keep you on your toes.
I started playing Observation with mouse and keyboard but soon realised it would be easier using a controller, especially when it came to some of the puzzles requiring inputting codes using the left stick. The puzzles tend to be either drawing schematic patterns of the Observation’s old-school wiring so Sam can unlock hatches between the four arms of the space station or are inputting “Simple Simon” type patterns to rectify hardware issues such as jammed external clamps or to activate ship-wide protocols.
Despite being set in a futuristic space ship, Observation actually made me go old school, again, and I found myself falling back to my old trusty red notebook, scribbling down patterns and notes and the schematics needed to unlock and lock hatches [hey, my memory isn’t what it used to be]. I took photos of things I considered important. I scribbled down words like “launch codes”, “strange artifact”, “protocol” and “space station”. I sketched weird symbols and patterns that flashed up throughout the game. Observation is one of those games that you may well find yourself jotting down schematics on a piece of paper.
Look, I loved Observation from start to finish, eager to find out what the strange alien artifact was all about and intrigued to see whether Sam would go full HAL 9000 by the game’s conclusion [I actually stayed up till 1am on a school night to finish the game].
I thought the ending was a little too cliched but a twist about the 3/4 mark was a nice touch that turned things on its head for the better. The ending also leaves the door open for a potential sequel. Maybe.
Observation is a great first effort from a new studio. I’m interested to see where developer No Code goes from here with its next game.
Late in the piece while writing this review I learned that some of the members of developer No Code were actually on the team that made The Creative Assembly’s Alien Isolation so, yeah, I guess they are fans of the movie Alien.
Thanks to Devolver Digital’s Australian distributor for the review code.