Observation (Playstation 4 Review)
It’s hard to stare into the enigmatic beauty of Observation’s spacetime drama between man and machine and not think about ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. It captures the movie’s essence so well that in-game parallels show up all over the place. Much like it’s inspirational theatrical, Observation is full of ambiguity and challenges players to really think through what’s happening. Even then you’ll be mystified throughout, until the credits roll.
Observation follows a crew of astronauts aboard a multinational space station orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere. In stellar fashion, a crisis ensues and something damages the station, leaving the crew in disarray. Power is limited and communications offline. SAM, the space station’s AI, is initialized by Emma Fisher, the seemingly only conscious astronaut, to help solve the problem. From here SAM watches and navigates Emma through the cramped, low gravity corridors of the space station in hope of restoring power and finding the missing crew mates. The relationship between both Emma and SAM, and its evolution, is what really keeps you invested as the narrative slowly melds Fiction and Science Fiction into, subverting expectations all the way to the finishing line. All the while taking various cues from 2001: A Space Odyssey and flipping them on their head.
It’s important to note at this point that you don’t play as Emma Fisher, the main focus of human interactivity in Observation, but rather you play as SAM. Since SAM is an AI he has no physical presence to navigate the space station and instead the player controls SAM through an interlaced CCTV system all across the station, jumping from one camera to another helping Emma get where she needs to go. Through these cameras SAM can manipulate electronic devices through wireless interfacing, letting the player unlock doors, startup crucial systems and even go through the crews personal emails if they see fit. Interacting with the environment is all very intuitive to the point of being a straight up point and click adventure at times, that is until you get to Observation more puzzling sections.
While Observation is primarily a narrative adventure, there’s the odd mind boggling puzzle here and there to keep things interesting. The fluctuating difficulty curve of these puzzles is enough to halt you in your tracks but remain intriguing enough to keep you invested. These puzzles will push you to the point that you feel just as intelligent as the AI you are controlling. More often than not, Emma will relay information to SAM that he must then seek out and either diagnose and fix a component or simply report an issue back to her. For example, SAM can give feedback on crew vitals via the station’s crew tracker so that Emma can understand if her fellow crewmates are in any immediate danger and their current location. However, tasks evolve to become far more complex than that as SAM is ordered to repair more vital functions of the station. These systems usually require a more intimate knowledge of the components themselves, like understanding the ins and outs of circuitry — resistors and electronic pathing — or when asked to gather coordinates of anomalies in space – using negative images of space itself. Sometimes the problem solving is so complex and granular, it can feel like searching for a grain of sand in the Sahara.
These objectives can be mesmerizing thanks to the load of technical jargon thrown at you that you’re expected to understand. To help combat these convoluted machinations, the player is inundated with documents that have technical specifications to follow and memorize, which unfortunately are just as intimidating as the puzzles. The glory in of all this is found in sense of accomplishment and genius found upon successfully figuring it all out. Slowly, but steadily, it feels as if your IQ is increasing the further into Observation you delve. Step by step you’re closer to becoming the astronaut you always dreamed of being when you were a kid.
It’s the low gravity that emulates the feeling of being an Astronaut best, simply flaoting around is a delight. On occasion SAM can take control of Spheres; small aerodynamic orbs with jet propulsion. Soaring about in these Spheres can be tricky to handle at first since the game tries to replicate a low gravity environment by making the Sphere skate around as if on ice, constantly clattering into walls. Personally, roaming around in one these is a more preferable choice of navigation than simply switching between cameras, for the simple fact that it gives you a more intimate close up with the workings of the space station, giving a true three dimensional feeling to it all. The interior, while explicit in its detail, is nothing compared to when you get to spacewalk. In some instances Emma will have SAM fix problems on the exterior of the station, it’s only here that you get a true sense of scale of the station and the vastness of space that surrounds it. Flying from one module to another is pure joy but again Observation’s attention to detail can be almost too impeccable as identifying the correct module or branch of the space station can be a nightmare as components and text bearing markers are all over the place, putting even the London Underground to shame.
Flying around in low gravity, the immaculate detail of the space station, and the intricacies of aerospace operation are all fundamental in creating Observation’s immersive atmosphere, but there are some loose rivets in its otherwise pristine alloy. Emma can, at times, be a bit unbelievable as an astronaut, failing to question or understand the various basics of space travel and occasionally ignores questionable interactions. Emma’s criticisms don’t stop there, Emma herself feels more robotic than SAM, her facial animations fail to trigger in time with dialogue and janky movement of her lips and eyes screams animatronic.
To top it all off Observation runs pretty poorly on a PlayStation 4 Slim. Transitioning from section to section on the space station can become jittery as assets load in. This is excluding Observation’s initial loading time which is drastically long, thankfully it only happens once per start up so there’s little fuss to be had. Performance may vary if you own a Pro, but the performance leaves much to be desired.
Observation is one of a kind, at least in the videogame market. I wouldn’t go as far to say it is a masterclass in storytelling, but it does take the inspiration from one. The complex nature of its puzzles and environment pay off in swathes once you get to grips with the mechanics and fully comprehend how to approach Observation. Observation falls into the category of games that should be played by everyone at least once, just for the experience. So get out there and uncover the true mysteries of space.