Observer Preview - E3 2017
We try to survive a terrifying encounter in the new horror game
Observer wasn’t really on my E3 radar after Microsoft’s press conference, where the first bit of gameplay was shown as part of an indie sizzle reel. It looked dark, moody, and a little weird, but with such a packed stable of games, it was hard for the title to stand out. It wasn’t until I walked the Microsoft booth that the game caught my eye; its blend of horror and sci-fi making it look akin to Frictional Games' recent hit, SOMA.
Observer is the product of Bloober Team, who you might remember as the developers behind 2016’s Layers of Fear - a game in which an artist suffered from a psychological breakdown while creating his grisly masterpiece. That particular title left our own reviewer Ben feeling mixed about the experience, saying, “Layers of Fear is a competent demonstration of jump scares compressed tightly into an ever-changing and dark mansion.”
At first glance, Observer seems like a logical follow-up for Layers of Fear. However, this time, instead of a journey through the mind of the game’s protagonist, the protagonist can hijack their way into the minds of others. Said protagonist is named Dan, a member of a special corporate-funded police unit called Observers. After Dan receives a message from his estranged son, he begins investigating the bowels of a sci-fi city.
While Layers of Fear was more of a physiological experience, without a deep plot or much in the way of narrative, Observer is clearly a more traditional story. And with that story comes a whole lot of lore. It took nearly a minute for the opening scrawl to finish, explaining that the world has experienced a pandemic, and then a war. It was all a bit dense and not the kind of thing that’s easy to commit to memory in a demo, but the developers have clearly put a bit of thought into this setting.
I open in a dingy and claustrophobic apartment complex. The light flickers, the atmosphere is oppressive; it feels like a futuristic slum. I quickly use my augmentations to check my objectives and find that I’m supposed to investigate apartment 104. The movement is slow and the controls feel very much like your standard contemporary first-person survival horror game - using the camera to look around, then zooming in to inspect certain elements.
I find the apartment and enter. It seems empty, and I wonder if my quarry isn’t home, or maybe they ran off. A fan is spinning in the corner, a hum that underscores the silence. The apartment is quite small, and there’s only one other door to go through.
As I open the door, I utter a noise that sounds like “Bleh…” There’s a corpse lying on the tile floor, a pool of blood has collected around it. More blood is splattered again in the bathtub which is propping the corpse up. The detail is impressive for a team that didn’t use a single human animation in their previous game. The head hangs to the side of the body, the gruesome spectacle is something I know I’m not likely to forget.
Once I’m close enough I find the corpse isn’t a corpse at all. The man is still alive, though they likely won’t be for long. Dialogue choices pop up on the screen as Dan tries to convince the dying man to let him hack into his mind. It’s a nice narrative touch - the requirement of consent before you can enter another person’s thoughts - an issue that likely would arise from a world where entering people’s thoughts would obviously be a massive invasion of privacy. The dying man gives his consent, and I go in.
I’m back in the apartment, right where I was at the start of the demo, though things have slightly altered and I assume I’m seeing the perspective of the dying man. This time when I enter the bathroom there’s an ear-splitting screech. I run into a nearby closet and shut the door, causing the noise to stop.
After I exit the closet, I walk to the window and look outside. Suddenly, I’m standing on a platform, surrounded by nothing but blackness. As I proceed, the game injects quick-cut terrors, the fragmented mind of the dying man is turning on me, making it hard to piece much together. Accenting the mood is some wonderful sound design, creating the unsettling atmosphere.
I find another window, and I can see something in the distance coming toward me. It’s a black crow that flies directly into the window and dies. Again, the sound design works overtime and at the bone crunching sound of the bird hitting the window, I jump. Fellow NGN writer Peter Ingham, who has been watching me play, is laughing at me so hard I can hear it through the headphones; he’s obviously loving how nervous I am while playing.
I turn and see the platform I’m standing on extending forward, away from the window. I follow and am led into a room with three different doorways; in the corner there is a TV getting a static-filled reception. I start trying to navigate through the rooms, but the labyrinth seems endless. Finally, I stop and take a closer look at the TV and see it’s showing one of the doorways available in the room. I take the suggested path, and continue to follow the directions of the TVs forward until I come to a final door.
I hear the boom of thundering footsteps, as if something large is coming for me. I look around, but don’t see anything. Then I catch a glimpse of the monster's shadow before it’s gone; the thing is humanoid, but large and imposing. I wait to see if I can catch a glimpse of the lumbering beast again, but with no luck I cautiously move on.
The next room resembles an interrogation room. On the table is a spoon. I attempt to pick up the spoon, but it’s chained to the table. I pull on the chain, and then suddenly find that the chains are wrapped around me, holding me to a chair. That’s when I start falling. I fall through the darkness and the demo ends.
It’s nice to see that while Observer will have all of the scares that were present in Layers of Fear, it’s also trying to build a more robust and substantial game. Hopefully, one that will have more to say than simply shocking players with frightening imagery.
Observer does not yet have a release date, but is expected in 2017. It will be available on PC, PS4 and Xbox One.