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.Continued on the next page...