This week, Yahtzee reviews Observation.
Let me guess, Devolver Digital: you paid for a fancy, expensive filter that makes your graphics look they're on old video, and now you're trying to convince your spouse that it wasn't a waste of money? Between this and Katana Zero, you certainly seem to be working it like the last copy of Mayfair on an oil rig. You ever spare a thought for the underage sweatshop workers who put my huge modern TV together, and what they must think of making its output look like it came from a TV I bought from a storage locker auction in North Korea?
When I say "between this and Katana Zero", by "this", I of course mean Observation! Yes, another story-based horror adventure indie game that's exclusive to the Epic Store, but which, in contrast to Close to the Sun, is actually quite good, so at least the Epic Store is showing improvement in this one highly specific area (although, Observation's on PS4, as well, so never mind).
Observation can best be summarized thusly: imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey was a found footage horror film, and you get to play as HAL 9000, complete with creepy, reassuring voice that's kind of like the voice Hannibal Lecter would use while describing his favorite My Little Pony and the appropriate wine pairing. So you play as the onboard computer on an orbital space station where, to coin a phrase, shit seems to have got fucky: the station's not where it's supposed to be; you've lost access to most of your systems and memory; the lone survivor is still being broadly polite, but her questions about where everyone is and what's going on are starting to sound a little pointed; also, there's this mysterious alien intelligence that rings you up every now and again to yell incoherently, and you're pretty sure it's not complaining about the noise. So your brief, in brief, is to figure out what the fuck's going on, and what the secret agenda is, the one that you were following up to now and possibly still are.
First of all, Observation's atmosphere is the tops. The audio is an absolute peach; a severe, industrial, groany peach that perfectly encapsulates the sense of terrifying isolation in a vast emptiness one feels when all your friends got put into a pie besides you. The setup of only being able to view the station through mounted cameras that pan slower than an establishing shot of the Parisian skyline in a very boring art film lends an effective sort of "Five Nights at Freddy's" tension where you might switch to a new camera and discover that all along, you were sharing the room with a giant cartoon duck with a switchblade and an erection. Of course, that aspect sort of goes away the moment you start using the mobile camera drone, which is a bit of a cop-out, but hopefully, by then, all the nice intrigue the story's built up will be what's keeping you around.
You might feel a little intimidated by Observation as it throws the kind of complex interface full of mysterious icons and diagrams one might expect from a space station management simulator designed for emotionless computers, but a lot of this is smoke and mirrors; the game is structured around a strictly linear story, and most of your abilities are locked out when not in service to whatever you're supposed to do next. In fact, one of my major criticisms for the game is that it feels less like an active situation and more like it's holding perfectly still, waiting for you to turn the page in the very interesting book it's trying to read to you.
So early on, there's a bit where you have to help Lone Survivor Lady put out a fire, and then she says, "Quick! Turn on the vents before I choke to death!", whereupon she fucking stands there, not talking and very conspicuously not choking to death for the ten minutes it took me to very slowly pan the camera around the room trying to find whatever random wall panel she was blithering on about now. This comes to a head in an exciting climactic moment where you have to seal one of the baddies into a room and depressurize it, a baddie who makes absolutely no effort to leave as you slowly and laboriously close and lock all the doors one by one; although, he does plead desperately for his life with the same tone of voice he'd use to complain that you left the toilet seat up.
What's next on my list of niggles? Well, the game's environment is deliberately evoking contemporary real-life space stations (and therefore, looks like an elaborate children's play area themed around an aeroplane baggage compartment), and it's very confusing to get around, especially with the low gravity and constant changing camera angles; it's like taking acid and losing your keys in a poorly-maintained server room. But that's almost certainly intentional; you're supposed to be a malfunctioning computer. All the time the player spends confused about where they are or what they're doing is possibly supposed to represent when a computer stops responding and just shows the little beach ball icon going around and around.
Then again, one of the things you're supposed to be doing is scanning all the ♫ random documents and audio logs. ♫ But what with the environment very immersively and accurately modeled after a real-life space station and, more to the point, a place where people live and work in cramped conditions, consequently, it's practically fucking laminated in random documents and Post-it Notes, and the difference between the ones that are just background flavor and the ones that can be scanned for information boils down to "lights up on HUD when you point to it", so you've just got to laboriously track your camera over all the walls waiting for a blip, which I guess is representative of when you're trying to get your scanner to work during a brownout.
I don't think the "you are a malfunctioning computer" excuse holds up universally, is my point. Far too often in the game, I was doing things to solve puzzles without having the slightest idea what I was doing, whether it was pointing at a perfectly fine-looking part of the station's exterior because every character and HUD readout in the game seems to think that it's visibly damaged, or brute-forcing my way through a puzzle by entering every possible code 'cos I didn't have a fucking clue what this circuit diagram was trying to tell me except that I didn't pay enough attention in Physics. And all the while, the humans wait patiently when they should be panicking or debating over who's going to have to be eaten first, and the immersion takes a bit of a hit. And immersion is the main strength of a claustrophobic, atmospheric horror game like this, and therefore, it is worth mentioning, so there.
Overall, though, it's a neat and uniquely-told little sci-fi horror yarn that hits just the right level of exposition that the science feels authentic, but not too much is given away to make the horror less mysterious, and I do recommend it, even if the actual gameplay descends far too often into linear instruction-following. I'd have liked a little more time to mess around and freely explore the station's functions, and surely, this isn't unreasonable; it's not like the game's set in fucking San Francisco and I'm asking for the freedom to examine every piece of homeless person's excrement. It's a fucking five-room space station! Just would've been nice to know that, at any moment, I could've blown the hatches and blasted everyone into space. Not that I would've done that; I'd have regretted it as soon as the orgasm had passed.
- What are you doing Dave: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- You know early on in this game the video filter made me wonder if I was looking at live action footage rather than 3D models, but then I saw the facial animation
- Let's face starvation on the Observation station