Adventure Gamers Awards
There have been many adventure games with the premise of a lone astronaut marooned in a derelict spacecraft with only their wits and usually a trusty mechanical companion to repair the ship and save the day. But it would be a mistake to lump Observation in with all the rest, as its developer has turned that concept on its head by making the playable character the ship’s artificial intelligence. Such ingenuity should not come as a surprise, as No Code’s last game, Stories Untold, shook up the Interactive Fiction genre with an equally inventive style of play. Previous games that have tried a similar approach include J.U.L.I.A. Among the Stars and eXperience112, but in both cases you were a human being operating the ship’s systems, not the A.I. itself. So how does embodying an actual machine intelligence work in this game? Along with some inherent challenges, it offers some interesting new ways to interact with the environment that work very well overall. Add to that an intriguing and somewhat sinister plot with several surprises along the way, and you have a compelling sci-fi adventure that’s very much worth playing.
Right from the very beginning, there is trouble. You are onboard the eponymous Low Orbit Space Station, which is spinning out of control 410 km above Earth. It is the year 2026, and at first your mission is unclear. You only know that there are severe problems on the station that need to be addressed. Doctor Emma Fisher (voiced impressively by Kezia Burrows of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture) manages to get you back online via voice authentication to assist. You are SAM (Anthony Howell, star of Call of Cthulhu), the station’s System Administration & Maintenance unit, and it is your job to fix the current problem – and as it turns out, many more to come. From here on in you receive instructions mostly from Emma, plus a couple others later in the game.
When you begin to access more of the station and connect to various laptops, messages left by the crew will reveal a deep mystery here beyond the station disaster that will keep you guessing as you dig further into the plot. Much of Observation’s story focus is on Emma, who is clearly the key to something – but what? You will also be introduced to other characters over time, including Jim Elias (the station captain), Josh Ramon (engineer) and Mae Morgan (scientist). Jim in particular is interesting, as you discover several warnings about his strange and suspicious behavour. These naturally lead you to suspect that Jim is somehow involved with what is going on, but if so, how? And why? Or are the warnings even true?
Then there is the question of your own role in these events. Once Emma connects to the long distance camera, she learns that the station has veered so far off course that it is now orbiting Saturn. She asks how that happened, and SAM accesses the ship’s logs to learn that he was responsible but doesn’t remember why. Either SAM is beginning to malfunction or a third party is capable of controlling him without anyone’s knowledge, either of which is serious since he is the key to getting out of this mess. SAM’s erratic behaviour will almost certainly draw comparisons to HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is no doubt on purpose.
Before long the story turns quite dark. First Emma, then SAM encounters a mysterious hexagonal object on occasion, each time requiring you to repeat a sequence of strange symbols multiple times to unlock it, at which point something strange will happen to suggest some other force is at work. One time you are even instructed to murder a crew member, though I’ll leave the outcome of that scenario for you to discover. As the story evolves and what’s happening becomes clearer, things turn darker still, with the station environment becoming covered in strange black material and tendrils. While Observation is not a horror game, it does have some disturbing elements that ratchet up the tension.
Eventually you will get more freedom to explore the station and solve various puzzles, but to begin with you only have access to station module cameras assigned as needed by Emma. This is where you will be introduced to the first of several different interfaces that must be mastered in order to complete your tasks. The initial one is how to convey the information you gather to Emma so that she can make command decisions on what to do next. While there are on-screen prompts to guide you, how to relay information (and trigger the next command) is still not at all intuitive. For example, when you are completing diagnostics on the requested module, you use the left mouse button to do the analysis. But when you find a fault, in order to let Emma know the specific problem, you need to hit the “R” key and simultaneously left-click on the problem area to transmit the information. Why not just click (or right-click) on the obvious problem area? The seemingly unnecessary level of interface complexity not only persists throughout, it actually gets more problematic as the game progresses.
This is no small issue either, as the interface is the most important part of the game besides the plot. The developers realized that simply controlling station cameras and zooming in on interactive objects (such as laptops, documents, hatch controls, etc.) would quickly wear thin, so they continually introduce additional ways for SAM to engage with the environment. These include accessing his O/S (to see a map of the various arms of the station and relocate cameras to any of those nodes) and eventually gaining mobility via the “connection sphere,” a compressed CO2-powered unit that lets you move freely around the station. Still later you can upgrade the sphere to allow exploration outside the station and acquire a boost feature that lets you bash selected items.
While these additions are welcome and add greatly to the gameplay variety, they bring with them more complicated means of interaction. I enjoyed this aspect of the game the most, but I also found it to be quite frustrating at times. For example, while in the connection sphere, along with the traditional WASD controls used to move you must also rotate clockwise and counter-clockwise. Since you are moving in gravity-free 3D space, you will constantly need to tweak your orientation to properly see and navigate. I frequently became disoriented and bumped into walls and objects before I got the hang of it. Some of the modules can be quite claustrophobic too, exacerbating the situation. The boost capability (when acquired) adds another keyboard control, but it is not at all obvious where you need to use it, so I tended to keep trying blindly until I found the right area. On the other hand, this feature can be used to conveniently speed your way through the station if you are able to control it.
The speed enhancement comes in handy as the space station is large, with many different arms to explore. On the Observation (when you have access to the SamOS), you can set waypoints to your destinations, which allows you to follow a path fairly easily. But in several parts of the game you need to exit the station for an outer space journey where waypoints are not available. Instead you simply roam around until you find the correct spot, with no direction even from Emma. This gets worse when you begin exploring another vessel of equal size and complexity as the Observation once you access it later in the game. Once there you have no access to a map, making navigation even more difficult.
Another issue is the timed element needed to solve several puzzles, including a fairly difficult one near the end. Here you must follow a sequence of highlighted spots in an octagonal array and use the keyboard to quickly move to each spot, then click to activate it and release a clamp. You have only ten seconds to do this and it will take many tries due to the fact that it isn’t at all clear how to even get to several of the octagonal positions. N,S,E and W are obvious enough, but it took persistent trial and error until I discovered the key combinations for NE, NW, SE and SW with such a restrictive time limit. If you fail and the timer runs out, you need to start over again. Worse, you need to do this three times, once for each of the three clamps located throughout the station! While these sorts of challenges are appropriate in an arcade-style or action game, they seem out of place in an otherwise leisurely adventure game.
This is just one of the many obstacles you’ll have to overcome in order to progress the story. To keep track of your current objectives, you can call up a task list. Usually there is just one item listed, ranging from searching the different station arms for crewmates to dealing with various station alerts, using astrophysics to find coordinates, and so on. Sometimes there are multiple goals to pursue (the most I ever had at one time was five) but even when that happens, while it appears they can be completed in any order, they are actually quite linear to simplify gameplay.
As you attempt to complete each assignment in sequence, be sure to interact with as many objects are you can, particularly laptops (which contain files and personal messages) and documents on walls and desks, pictures, etc. If you can interact with an object you will be able to “connect” to it by clicking on it and repeating a three-digit code. Not only will these items yield clues to proceed, they also provide intriguing backstory. (Pay special attention to log entries by crew members to help figure out what is going on.) To review your progress and relevant documents/clues, you can access SAM’s memory core which keeps a record of every important thing you do.
While exploring the many areas of Observation, you’ll want to take time to admire the level of detail the developers have implemented. It is impressive, including not only the things you’d expect to see in an international space station, such as storage containers, emergency equipment and floating medical kits, but also the crew’s personal items like notes from home, photos and children’s art. These little touches really add to your sense of immersion in the environment. Add to that the well-developed physics engine, especially when constantly crashing into objects (with a jarring, bumping effect) when using the connection sphere, and you really feel like you are in space!
Since all puzzles are environmental, there is no need for an inventory system. This is unusual for an adventure game but makes sense here and the obstacles you face have been nicely implemented, with a few notable exceptions. Although I found the camera switching and zooming into objects refreshing, executing these tasks is not always easy. For instance, most locations have multiple cameras that must be switched back and forth in order to find the correct angle for interaction with the appropriate item. This can be tedious and time-consuming, since the cameras pan very slowly. Other activities that may try your patience include meticulously scanning an astral field to find specific coordinates, and several other timed sequences (such as activating an Experimental Fusion Reactor) that make you repeat the process several times.
Graphically the quality is generally high in presenting space station-type imagery. Some scenes are crisp and clear, like the very beginning and during some cut scenes where you see the station approaching Saturn, but mostly I was reminded of our own Space Shuttle video feeds, where there is a bit of graininess and occasional interference, especially when maneuvering SAM around in the connection sphere. This is obviously intentional and does a good job of making it seem like you’re viewing the station through recording equipment. Similarly the sound design is very well done, with realistic ambient effects (the hum of machinery on the Observation) and radio communication between SAM and others on the station, but no sounds in space (as there shouldn’t be!). Synthesized music plays subtly most of the time (even in space), at times amplified by occasional deep rumbling backgrounds and higher-pitched sounds when appropriate to reflect moments of added intensity.
The ending is interesting, but I must admit to finding it a bit confusing. I am not sure if the developers are planning a sequel, but if they are the elements are in place to release one. To reach that point there is a solid 10-15 hours of gameplay to experience, with progress regularly recorded by an autosave system. While I struggled with the interface and some of the mini-games and controls at times, overall I thoroughly enjoyed playing Observation. The exceptional voice cast, realistic space environments and intriguing plot had me eagerly coming back for more, right up to the engrossing if perplexing finale. If you are a fan of this kind of adventure game, or are just curious about the premise of playing a game as an artificial intelligence, you should really give Observation a try.