This week, Yahtzee reviews Observer.
Due to technical issues, the video's premiere was delayed a week on the Escapist website. The episode premiered August 08, 2018 on the nominally post-ZP live stream on Twitch and was released on August 15, 2018 on both The Escapist and YouTube simultaneously.
Every year, it's the bloody same: "Oh, the mid-year drought isn't so bad; I'll just do indie games on Steam and retros and laugh at an industry that never learns anything, tee hee hee." And now we're in the middle of it, and I'm desperately searching under sun-bleached rocks, looking for something that isn't slathered in anime faces like a row of electrical sockets.
You know, I even seriously considered reviewing No Man's Sky again, now that it's apparently been patched all the way from "universally despised pariah" to the lofty heights of "another bloody survival crafting exploration game", but no. It's against my principles to encourage this "let's just fix in in post" culture; that is not a world in which I wish to exist, because I would never be able to have confidence in a negative review again. A game could melt my PC into hot slag until it falls over and sets fire to the curtains; I'd still have to add the proviso "Oh, but it's all right, 'cos in the future, they might patch in a new pair of curtains."
So fuck it. In the end, I decided to review a game I'd missed out on from last year that popped up on my Steam recommendations apropos of nothing, like a starry-eyed young actor showing up on the last day of auditions. Observer is a game by Bloober Team. No, really; that's their name. Sounds to me like someone asked them their name before they could come up with it and someone had to hastily make one up. Same developers as Layers of Fear, which, you may recall, I didn't take too much, 'cos it was a classic walking simulator with all the usual walking simulator trappings: deliberately obscure plot, and it's only the continued brain-busting challenge of locating the "W" key on your keyboard that stops it being essentially the same as riding the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland.
Observer, in contrast, plays like a first-person adventure game that's currently in rehab for walking simulator addiction; it's gradually rebuilding its life one dialogue tree or basic lock-opening puzzle at a time, but every now and again, it falls off the wagon. And if Layers of Fear came of riding the Haunted Mansion ride a few too many times, Observer comes of re-watching Blade Runner every night: cyberpunk dystopia, check - You know, for once, I'd like to see a cyberpunk utopia, where the corporations started bolting computers to people's faces and everything just worked out perfectly well - main character's a detective, check; completely unnecessary opening text crawl which might as well have been replaced with the words "It is a cyberpunk dystopia", check; Rutger Hauer's in it, double-check with chips on the side.
Rutger Hauer, who now talks like he's processing all his words through a slightly blunt hand-cranked ice-crushing machine, is an Observer, a sort of cyber-detective with the ability to jack off, I mean, jack into other people's brains in order to search their memories for evidence of dirty crimes and whatever else should be of interest; perhaps "jack off" was right, after all. Anyway, our hero, Daniel Lazarski, which is one of those surnames that sounds just perfect being described as a loose cannon across the desk of a sweaty police chief, is contacted by his estranged tech genius son who probably stopped calling 'cos he was sick of explaining to Rutger Hauer how to use Facebook. But something's gone to shit and he needs help, so dear old Dad comes to the slum apartment building his son was calling from, finds a whole bunch of crime scenes and dead bodies, and must piece together exactly what his son was doing and what it has to do with the evil mega-corporation that inevitably hangs over everything like the highly-productive rectum of a pitiless controller god by jacking into the minds of a select number of victims. So basically, it's Blade Runner meets Psychonauts meets the Haunted Mansion ride.
You know, detective games have long struggled with the concept of "investigative gameplay"; how do you make a gameplay mechanic based around the player figuring stuff out that can determine that the player actually did figure it out and isn't just rolling a belt sander back and forth across the controller until progress happens? Observer takes a bold approach to this age-old problem, and that's to not let it bother them in the slightest; while you go over crime scenes with three different pairs of matching electronic spectacles, holding down the "Analyze" button on everything that makes one of your spectacles go widdly-wee, what usually happens after you've widdly-wee'd everything that can be widdly-wee'd is that Rutger Hauer announces he's figured it out and the door to the next bit opens.
Either that, or there'll be a four-digit code lock you need to figure out, but the game makes sure no one gets left behind; there is literally a moment where the numbers you need to figure out materialize before you in giant neon digits. Another time, I was casually jacking off into the head of a dead young lady in a room with a conspicuous four-digit code lock, and towards the end of the jack-off sequence, I see the same lady in the same room going "6105. 6105! 6105." So once I was back in reality, I went back to the code lock, flush with pride in my deductive reasoning skills, but before I could do anything, Rutger Hauer went, "I think the code might be 6105! What do you think, electronic geniuses of the future?!"
So despite its handful of puzzles and explorative element where you wander the mazelike hallways of the apartment building, having arguments with random people's door intercoms in a way that screams "We didn't want to have to design more than, like, three characters", Observer is still elbow-deep in Walking Simulator Land. The jack-off sequences are the moments where the walking simulator leaps off the bench, rubbing its hands together with glee, and I'm tempted to use the word "overindulgent", as well as the word "cuntblast", but that's for unrelated reasons. So with the justification that we're exploring a dying person's mental realms stitched together from unreliable memories, all the old Layers of Fear reality-buggeration comes back in force, spooky happenings and illogical geography galore. But again, it's just Haunted Mansion "press 'Forward' to continue" and "I keep hearing random audio stings, because apparently, something sudden and jumpscare-y happened while I was looking at something else".
But then, on, like, three occasions during jack-off bits, Mr. Gameplay wakes up with a start, sees that Mr. Walking Simulator has been running unchecked for, like, an hour, and goes, "Shit! Uh… here's a monster; stealth around it or something, I guess." But I've been settling into a light puzzling-cum-sightseeing-tour groove for the last several hours, so this sudden risk of an insta-kill game over is very bloody jarring; if you wanted to sprinkle gameplay into your Haunted Mansion ride, then I'd have put some kind of comprehension test at the end, to see if we'd figured out that the exploding jackdaw with the head of Bruce Forsyth was supposed to symbolize that the subject didn't get on with their dad growing up.
So in summary, I'd say I like Observer quite a bit more than Layers of Fear, and it's mainly because, fun as it may be to explore the visual artistry of the interactive medium by throwing plates at our head as we walk down a hallway, a nice bit of context and grounding in reality can work wonders. A little puzzle or gameplay challenge can really help us refocus when we've been dazed by a flying sugar bowl; it's just finding the right blend of elements, now. Exploration mechanics? Yes. Jarring insta-kill monster interludes? Cuntblast.
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- I've seen things you people wouldn't care much about