As the famous tag line from the film Alien says, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Which is true, but then it’s also true that no one could hear you play a kazoo, alarm an ombudsman with a powerful erotic dance involving maracas, or emit a ‘bronx cheer’ either.
Obviously, the wording chosen is supposed to evoke a very specific sensation that space is scary, deadly and full of real weird stuff (so essentially, like the middle aisle in Lidl but with fewer discount patio sets) rather than just lacking the requirements to transmit sound. But is space really that scary? It’s basically just full of nothing, and even the titular alien itself is no worse than things you get in Australia – a continent so heaving with lethal fauna it’s a wonder the koala doesn’t have a handgun for an anus. Yet people still happily go there on holiday!
I think the real worry it’s trying to impart is this: fear of being alone.
What with its lack of air, heat, a floor, and branches of Costa, space is a bit rubbish to live in and so very, very few people do – and those that do have to exist sealed up in space stations: essentially giant orbiting caravans where you have to eat baby food, Velcro yourself into bed and poo into a special hoover (mercifully, not simultaneously).
Should things go awry, having no one around to turn to for help while you float about trapped in a tin box surrounded by literally buggerall is obviously a bit rubbish and scary, and that’s the premise behind Observation; a creepy puzzle solver spewed out by the excellent folks at Devolver.
In somewhat of a twist, you play not as the main character of the game – astronaut Emma Fisher, marooned on a damaged space station with a mysteriously absent crew – but as the space station’s AI computer system, SAM. Only you’re not quite yourself and periodically black out and behave oddly, like someone on a hen do activity day who’s been drinking knock-off Malibu since 10am and is now trying to convince a sceptical staff member at a go-karting track that she’s safe to drive despite only being able to see out of one eye.
It’s your job in the periods between being possessed by whatever thing is making you go wonky to help Emma repair the station and find out what the ruddy heck is going on. This is done initially by hopping about the station modules via CCTV cameras, accessing computers and solving logic puzzles. Later, you get a free-roaming drone to control and even have to engage in spacewalks and the like, pooting yourself about on little thrusters.
Being in space, and this being a ‘proper’ space station and not some fancy Star Trek type gaff with artificial gravity that looks more like a dentist’s waiting room than a spaceship, you can move, rotate and float about in all directions freely on any axis. Suffice to say, if this were a VR game it’d probably make you horrendously sick.
As it is, it might take you a while to get used to the fact that what’s ‘up’ when you go into a new area isn’t necessarily ‘up’ for that particular room – disorientation being something real astronauts (and, to be fair, non-space dwelling would-be go-karters who reek of discount coconut liqueur) often struggle with. That can lead to some confusion with puzzles and navigation at first, but once you get your eye in you’ll start thinking much more 3D-ish.
It’s all very classic sci-fi in feel, and the stark, claustrophobic, and remarkably realistic space station is a genuinely unsettling place to explore. The game plays out very much like an interactive film – indeed, it only starts proper after you complete a few early tasks and then get a full-blown (and entirely splendid) movie-style title sequence.
This cinematic feel continues throughout with the use of cut scenes, jump cuts, camera effects and the like, often at unexpected moments that help throw you off balance. It’s a game that’s as watchable as it is playable, and has that rarest of things – a real sense of originality to it. Although there are quite a few explore-o-puzzlers these days, I can’t remember playing anything quite like this.
In fact, it reminded me most of the old Freescape 3D titles (Driller, Dark Side), or something like the even older Mercenary – exploring a spartan environment with very little immediate threat for the most part, but a definite sense of unease mixed in with the claustrophobia and agoraphobia.
I’m also relieved to say that this doesn’t just collapse into another ‘Jaws in space’ type thing either. Observation thankfully goes in for psychological spookings and high-concept sci-fi rather than outright horror, and there’s no slobbering, violent cousin of ET waiting to pop out of a space cupboard at the end to gnaw on your hapless astronaut’s legs. (That said, now I’ve thought of it Jaws in space would clearly be excellent – get to work, ‘Hollywood’.)
If there are any frustrations to be had, it’s that sometimes the puzzle solutions are a bit too obscure and you can find yourself stuck in an area with no hint of what you’re missing. For example, in one module I was searching for ages for a file containing some information, and it turned out it was on a laptop that I thought I had already checked; there were in reality two different laptops, but the layout of the room was such that this was a really hard spot from the camera angles available.
Similarly, earlier on during a spacewalk I couldn’t find the area to check that the game was obviously asking me to look for, and the identikit sections of the station made working out where I’d looked and where I hadn’t that much trickier to suss out.
These unfortunate clogs in otherwise pristine puzzle pipes aren’t game killers by a long way, but a patient approach is going to be a necessity in some parts. Again, while there are faster-paced points, on the whole it’s a more slow-burn movie-like mentality.
But I’d argue that’s no bad thing now and again – after all, what sort of a mindless, vulgarian clot would routinely sit and fast forward through films just to get to action sequences and miss out on all the plot? (Answer: D. Trump does this. I rest my case.)
While the game is ultimately fairly linear (there’s extra exposition to uncover, but no real branches off of the main story), and won’t take you much longer than 2 or 3 evenings to get through, I’d say it’s well worth your investment.
It’s clever, different, and unsettling, and does exactly what it sets out to do exceptionally well. Plus it leaves you thinking without turning into a Kojima-style impenetrable bewilderment fest along the way.
It’s also refreshing to see someone try a sci-fi idea that isn’t a Star Wars knock-off, or a straight ‘kill all non-human life forms’ thing. I suspect I’ve sold a lot of you already on the idea of a more thoughtful, less zappy interstellar experience, but if you’re wavering I’d say this: if you think stories in space begin and end with camp robots, pointy-eared grumps or dudes in saucers with rectal probes, this is well worth a punt to broaden your (event) horizons.
SCORE: 2001 out of 2010