From many of the same people that brought you Alien Isolation comes a new sci-fi thriller inspired by movie classics Interstellar and 2001.
Video games are not a natural storytelling medium, or at least not in terms of linear narrative. It’s fairly easy to make them look like movies but the longer they spend in passive cut scenes the less they qualify as interactive entertainment. Walking sims have embraced this paradox, eschewing almost all gameplay in favour of pure storytelling, with even action games like Red Dead Redemption II leaving most of the plot to unravel during endless horse rides.
Classics such as What Remains Of Edith Finch prove just how effective this approach can be, but it’s very difficult to get right. Not only do you need a story compelling enough to last the much longer running times of the average video game but if you are going to include gameplay elements as well then then they need to be fully justified by the narrative and, ideally, entertaining in their own right. Unfortunately, Observation fails on all counts.
Another thing you want to avoid is making a story-based game based on your favourite movie, without properly considering the ramifications. Observation was clearly pitched as 2001 but where you’re HAL 9000 (the rogue computer). Throw in some additional nods to Interstellar and some superb visuals and you have a game that proudly wears its influences on its sleeves… and yet can find absolutely nothing of substance to do with them.
Observation starts with you, as artificial intelligence S.A.M., rebooting after a catastrophic failure in the spacestation you’re the caretaker of. The station is badly damaged and all the crew are missing except for one Emma Fisher. You’ve lost your memory and it’s not immediately clear where you are or what your mission was supposed to be. If you’ve seen either of the two movies we’ve just name-dropped you can already guess, but spoilers prevent us from going into any detail.
S.A.M. proves to be a fairly ineffectual AI, as you can’t control any element of the station directly but instead can only interface, via a sort of space age Bluetooth connection, with laptops and devices you can physically see through the security cameras that litter each room. And so the primary thrust of the gameplay involves searching each camera view for interactive objects, tracking slowly across the screen like an old point ‘n’ click adventure to make sure you don’t miss one.
Most laptops include recordings from the crew, almost all of which turn out to be irrelevant and rather dull, doing little to deepen the characterisation of anyone. You also quickly realise that you can’t interact with anything important unless it’s directly involved in your current objective. This includes occasional jaunts in a little floating sphere, that allows you to move around in first person but which the game always seems desperate to restrict as much as possible.
As you try to find the other crew members, and keep the various parts of the station working, you end up performing various mini-games to do things like turn on a venting system or realign a communications dish. These are far more simplistic than they first seem though and require only the most basic of logical reasoning, or fast reaction times, to solve.
You are able to interact with Emma to some degree, although none of your decisions seem to have any real affect on the story and if you ever fail a mini-game the game just finds some excuse to pretend it doesn’t matter. All of which is just as frustrating and unengaging as it sounds. In fact, it’s worse because everything takes an eternity to happen, as you slowly pan cameras around and navigate awkward interfaces to achieve tasks that seem to be as purposefully overcomplicated and long-winded as possible.
There are two things which make Observation especially disappointing though, the first being the absolutely top notch presentation and atmosphere. Although the facial animation is fairly low-tech everything else looks fantastic and almost photorealistic. The feeling of being in a real, realistic-looking spacestation is completely convincing and the occasional spacewalks are some of the most awe-inspiring portrayals of outer space we’ve ever seen in a video game.
But none of that means very much when there’s so little to the gameplay or plot. The story has nothing original or poignant to say and the characters are barely two-dimensional, with the story ending abruptly and unsatisfyingly with what could easily be interpreted as sequel begging. Which are exactly the same problems Alien Isolation suffered from.
Except Isolation was also a brilliant survival horror; whereas Observation constantly squanders its opportunities to work as a deep space thriller, with its leaden pace and lack of any real tension or fear of failure.
It’s upsetting to play a game that has clearly had so much effort expended on it; as you realise that all its obvious potential is slowly being drained away, like oxygen out of a leaky spaceship. The fact that you’re an AI rather than a human has almost no bearing on the story or your interactions, and the denouement is entirely underwhelming. It’s a rare video game that has both good storytelling and a good gameplay, but either on their own can still be perfectly compelling. Observation has neither.
In Short: 2001 is hardly the most obvious movie to use as inspiration for a video game and perhaps predictably the end result suffers from slow-pacing and a lack of meaningful interaction.
Pros: Fantastic visuals and a stunning, and impressively realistic, portrayal of space travel. Great music and atmosphere.
Cons: Extremely dull and simplistic gameplay that goes out of its way to be as slow-paced as possible. Predictable and unsatisfying story that lacks originality and narrative depth.
Formats: PlayStation 4 (reviewed) and PC
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Developer: No Code
Release Date: 21st May 2019
Age Rating: 16
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