A camera films Dr. Emma Fisher, an astronaut aboard what seems to be an otherwise empty International Space Station, as she floats through the facility’s tangled modules just after some horrible accident. The situation looks bleak: the rest of the crew is missing, and the ISS is no longer in Earth orbit. Fisher must piece together what happened and why. Wires creep like blue veins into a centralized hub, connecting the live feed to a station-wide artificial intelligence system called “S.A.M.” As the game begins, Fisher’s trapped in a station module, and needs S.A.M.’s help to escape — but moreover, S.A.M. needs her help, too. This is Observation, a sci-fi thriller video game developed by No Code and published by Devolver Digital and out now for PlayStation 4 and PC.
Plenty of pop culture portrays AI as either untrustworthy or outright evil, playing on our fears of a potentially threatening and little-understood new technology (because we’re aboard a space station, the comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey are unavoidable). But Observation takes a different approach. Instead of having to contend with, outsmart or defeat an AI, players are the AI — you’re playing as S.A.M., not Fisher. That clever and refreshing change in perspective turns the typical sci-fi technophobia storylines on their head, forcing players to rethink their relationship with AI. Is S.A.M. good, evil, or just a neutral collection of algorithms and sensors? The storyline leaves that for players to decide, but their thinking would no doubt be different if they were in Fisher’s shoes instead.
Observation’s gameplay is easy enough. S.A.M. has access to the station’s security cameras and lock systems, enabling it to help Fisher go where she needs to go. Opening hatches requires solving a matching puzzle, which you can only do after you’ve found the corresponding key elsewhere in a room. The puzzles themselves are familiar gaming tropes; players need to move pieces, match symbols and scroll through numbers to beat them. Successfully completing them moves the plot along, whether by getting Fisher out of a locked module or analyzing damage to the station.
Many of the missions are solved using the game’s camera system, which often has the feel of a found footage horror film, heightening the game’s creepiness. S.A.M. can also access a self-contained sphere to jet freely around the ISS. The sphere is used in environmental puzzles that send players into the labyrinthine space station, forcing them to switch back-and-forth from static camera to sphere to complete each problem.
Observation is at its best when these “free” areas are used sparingly; the sphere’s movement is too sensitive to feel natural, even at the lowest settings. Moreover, while S.A.M.’s sphere helps players move about the station more naturally, it comes at the cost of what makes Observation so unique. The game’s best moments are created by the forced perspective of the space station’s cameras. A static camera builds suspense, a fear of what’s just beyond the screen. Certain corners — the dark and spooky ones — can’t be seen. Even if there’s nothing in these corners (and often there’s not), the fear of the unknown creates a tension that a free-moving camera can’t replicate.
While Observation is meant to make players feel as if they’re controlling a sentient computer system, they have no true free will — No Code is telling only one story here, and players have to follow it. It’s also a short game, at about six to seven hours. But it forms a tight, thoughtful narrative woven together with simple and challenging puzzles. It’s quiet in its drama, and subtle in its horror. This is no Alien: Isolation, but fear lurks just below the surface regardless. It’s the slow-rolling mystery that makes Observation so compelling. As Fisher workers through the clues with S.A.M.’s help, she realizes the ISS is, strangely enough, headed for Saturn. But who’s trying to bring it there? The answer may terrify you — if you weren’t just a computer system.