A sci-fi adventure that's not as clever as it hoped to be
Observation tries to be a sophisticated experience. This isn't science fiction by way of Mass Effect, with telekinetic powers and strange alien races, this is a video game for the thinking person - a game that is filled with flipping switches and authenticating commands in sterile locations with dry dialogue about subroutines and oxygen levels. It has more in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey than it does with Star Wars - a haunting exploration of how contact with other-wordy entities might be beyond human comprehension and that something as primitive as our own species may find ourselves in over our heads when it comes to something unknown. Observation certainly has lofty thoughts and high-minded aspirations for itself, but it's a game that is so in love with what it wants to say, that it loses focus on how to say it.
The gameplay concept for Observation is that you're playing as the AI system running a space station (which is called Observation, in case you were wondering where the title came from), named S.A.M. After an "incident", which is left rather vague, you are rebooted by Emma, one of the crew members aboard Observation. With power failing and many of the station's functions offline, Emma uses S.A.M. to repair the station and starts thinking about a way to get home. However, as she and S.A.M. go about their work, they begin to realize that their mission aboard Observation isn't what they thought it was.
Observation has fun ideas, but it never quite works, narratively. There's a little too much time focusing on the survival aspect of the story. It doesn't help that Observation largely plays things straight. At first, the game feels like it's about getting Observation up and running, finding the crew, and salvaging the mission. You get the idea that things might be dangerous, but it definitely seems like a game that's caught up in the idea of space being the most uncompromising environment and less about the insane nonsense that might be waiting just beyond Mars - something closer to Fullbright's Tacoma. And when the twists start coming, you kind of expect that you're being pulled away from the survival narrative for some devastating reveal - but you're not. I kept waiting for an "ah-ha!" moment that left me feeling satisfied, but Observation never really delivered on those terms. Emma goes through a rather shocking character charge in the final stretch of the story that feels unwarranted - and that's probably the biggest problem with Observation's narrative - it just feels unearned. It's playing everything so straight and serious that you're really hoping for some payoff, but it never quite gets there.
Controlling the AI construct is fun at first. The game has some smart mechanics that help you feel like you're playing as a computer, rather than a person. One of the first things you're introduced to is the response mechanic. Whenever you're looking around, you can hold down the trigger button and you might be able to respond to something Emma has said. For instance, if Emma asks the status of a crew member, you can check your crew-tracking systems, hold the trigger button and deliver the information you see on the screen to her. Being an AI, it's somewhat useless for you to know things and more important for humans to know things, and this is a smart mechanic to get that done.
There are some other creative ways that Observation has S.A.M. interact with the environment. This can be closing and opening hatches, which you can do just by looking at hatch controls and pressing a button, though sometimes you'll need to hunt down a schematic diagram and use that to unlock them. There are also times you'll have to hunt for password and codes to complete puzzles. But developer No Code quickly starts to run out of ideas. They start recycling things you've done before or take fairly mundane tasks and stretch them out by making you repeat them multiple times, usually spending a lot of time traversing the space station.
This is the latest of multiple games this year to make movement unpleasant and while Observation isn't the biggest offender, it's still plenty bad. At first, you can only move between cameras, which is initially kind of fun, but it's a difficult way to try and hunt for the thing you're looking for (which you need to do fairly often). It's clear that realism is the operative word and Observation is obsessed with it, so the slow movement is supposed to represent how real cameras work. Eventually, Emma builds a floating sphere that allows S.A.M. to move around the space station free of any cameras and somehow this is worse. The controls are clunky and still slow, as you're always constantly spinning around, forgetting which way is up and it makes navigating incredibly frustrating. Movement is the lifeblood of most games, it's how we interact and explore the world, so to have something so fundamental about the game be so totally flawed puts Observation in a hole it never can quite get out of.
The game is also in desperate need of a better map or HUD that helps direct you around the station because it is so easy to get turned around. Again, the biggest problem with this is that you'll often know where to go and what to do, or what you're supposed to find, but simply getting there is a huge headache.
Part of the issue is that the game doesn't have a lot of visual variety. It's a big space station with multiple wings and rooms, but it all looks relatively the same no matter where you are. That's in-step with the game's notion toward realism; the environment has been constructed to be industrial, clean, sterile and efficient, bathed sleek white and lacking in personality or visual cues to help the player along. Another problem is the facial animations on the characters. It's certainly a brave choice for No Code to feature numerous scenes with the human character close up to the camera, speaking to S.A.M., but even being generous, a lot of facial expressions look robotic. And since the game is playing everything so straight and believable, it's difficult to take things seriously when the characters look so plastic.
The game also suffers from some technical snafus. I had it crash on me during a tense sequence and it pushed me back about 10 minutes. I also had consistent framerate issues when I was in the sphere and free to fly around. They're not the worst problems, but they certainly don't help a game where the biggest issues are pacing and movement.
Observation is a frustrating game because you can see the good in it. There are kernels of an interesting story with unique characters, some cool puzzle ideas, and occasionally some visual flair pops up - there's good stuff here. Yet, there's so much muck between all of it. The game is almost sticky in how it's constantly delaying payoff, delaying gameplay and delaying an engaging experience. It's almost as if No Code was terrified players might speed run the game and finish it in a couple of hours, so everything has been slowed to a snail's pace as you plod along, battling with the movement controls and getting frustrated by the navigation. Observation had good ideas, it falls apart trying to stick the landing.