Observation – Sleuthing Through Space
Xbox One, PC, PS4
Mystery awaits in developer No Code’s thriller Observation, which deftly sets a gripping tone with fantastic audio and visual design, but unfortunately accompanying the mystery are a few minor frustrations.
The premise of Observation is that the player takes on the role of SAM, a space-station computer system that has until recently been helping some astronauts on a mission. Problem is, SAM has lost its memory since a catastrophic accident rocked the station, and Dr Emma Fisher appears to be the only crew member around to help solve the mystery of what on Earth (or above it?) has happened.
The game progresses in chapter-like chunks as SAM and Emma work together to restore vital systems throughout the station so she can survive long enough to find the missing crew and figure out what’s happened. Player interaction with the station via SAM starts by using security cameras in each area to scan objects like laptops or letters & notes on the wall to solve problems at Emma’s request. As the game progresses, the players methods of interacting the world expand into being able to control a Connection Sphere, a little ball that functions as a mobile camera.
The game is a short, mostly linear experience. There isn’t an option to save manually at any point, but it’s not really necessary – when I did encounter a bug or the game crashed (thankfully, that only happened once), I just reloaded and hadn’t lost too much progress.
Observation is mostly about paying attention to detail, which luckily for me, I am horrendous at. The game presents a lot of information about how players are meant to go about things, but it can sometimes be easily missed or glossed over – this is not a game to play when feeling a little tired or trying to relax. Players need to pay attention to what Emma is telling them and scan every last inch of the environments for clues as to what’s happening and the information necessary to progress the story. It’s possible to have Emma to repeat her commands, but she doesn’t always deliver the same amount of detail in her repeated instruction, so players should prepare to have their brain on its A-game.
Observation supports both keyboard and mouse or a controller with the game, and I thoroughly recommend players use a controller. I played the game in its entirety with keyboard and mouse and ducked back in afterwards to compare the experience with a controller, and the difference is large enough that I would say a controller is essential. A lot of my frustration with puzzles stemmed from the keyboard controls feeling a bit clunky, so if there’s a controller available a lot of unnecessary annoyance can be avoided by using it instead.
Controlling the Connection Sphere was a bit of a motion-sickness inducing grind until I realised I could rotate the Sphere with Q and E (or the bumpers on an Xbox controller). While the game does state this information in the menus, I’d missed it but feel it’s essential in giving players a sense of control when navigating the environment in the Sphere. In a close second for ‘Things You Should Know That I Missed, Yay Me’ is the ability to set waypoints on the map, the command for which can be seen at the bottom of the map screen. It was especially handy for instances when I just couldn’t figure out which damn door I was meant to go through to get where I needed to be.
The gameplay itself is fairly simple and the puzzles aren’t overly complex in their difficulty once the solution is deduced, but the “figuring out” process is hampered by some puzzles not conveying enough information. The line between presenting enough information for the player but still making it challenging enough to be considered a puzzle isn’t always well-balanced, which is unfortunate. A way to adjust puzzle difficulty for those that have trouble (or even an option for some hints) would’ve been nice and increased the game’s accessibility.
Speaking of accessibility, there aren’t any dedicated accessibility options in the game at all, which is disappointing. I sometimes found the environments a bit hard to read, for example, being able to quickly determine which objects I could interact with. The Response Mode which is employed when SAM needs to reply to Emma is somewhat useful in that it’ll highlight things the player can interact with (another Thing You Should Know). However, there’s one section of the game where players need to examine the outside of the station in the Connection Sphere, during which I spent a long time zooming around trying to figure out where exactly the game wanted me to explore. Emma’s limited verbal cues aren’t much help, and most of what I was looking for is rather small compared to the enormity of the station, so it would’ve been nice if the Response Mode highlighted objects from a little further away to assist navigating the area. While there are a few graphical settings players could likely tweak to help a little, it’s a shame there’s no colour-blind filters for a game that relies so heavily on the use of visuals.
The visual aesthetic of SAM’s menus & prompts and the tech players interact with on the station evokes a mix between old PC nostalgia and futuristic sci-fi very well; the design choices here really help capture the feel of the world SAM is navigating. The broader level set dressing is also great, with lots of little touches and details that I greatly appreciated stumbling upon.
The sound design is, I would say, one of the absolute best parts of the whole experience, and I make a point of it as I fear good sound design often goes underappreciated. The ambient noise in Observation really communicates the feeling of being on a space-station; the crackling of the audio, the beeps, buzzing, and whining that accompanies equipment being some examples. I also really appreciated the ominous synth that pops up here and there – it evokes feelings of awe and terror when combined with the already outstanding choices made of the other sound design in the game. The voice acting is also superb; while there are voice logs from other crew members aboard the station, both SAM and Emma’s voice actors do as much heavy lifting as the rest of the sound design in helping immerse players into the world of Observation.
I honestly can’t say whether or not Observation’s story really hit home for me; I suspect that my frustration with the keyboard and mouse controls on my first run-through tainted my view of the narrative somewhat. There were moments when the story had me excited to see where things would lead, only for me to become confused about what exactly I was supposed to do, quickly dulling any enthusiasm. That being said, there’s a lot to the story that I really like, but some of it falls into the area of high concept, vague sci-fi tropes that I personally don’t always enjoy.
Overall, there’s a lot to like about Observation, but it’s not something I would recommend to everybody. The caveat here is that players will need to approach the game with a willingness to go over everything with a fine-tooth comb, even the menus. For those that struggle with this expectation like I do, Observation might not be the game for you. The experience doesn’t feel too long or too short, and the very best moments are intense and bloody terrifying. If you’re into sci-fi or thrillers, grab your controller and prepare for lift-off.
Laura enjoys long, leisurely walks around the neighbourhood in search of local cats and talking about Dungeons & Dragons. Laura got back into video games with Jade Empire on the original Xbox, and her sleep schedule has never looked the same since. You can usually find Laura playing shooters, RPGs, and most anything in-between.