Science fiction allows us to look at the future while tackling issues of the present. In an increasingly bleak world, there seem to be two approaches to the genre: imagining a setting that grapples and resolves our dilemmas, and creating a future that makes current shortcomings seem minor in comparison.
Observer, a first-person horror game from Bloober Team, follows the latter approach. Set in the year 2084, the world is presented as a cyberpunk dystopia. In this world, the line between human and machine is thin as humanity and technology meld together, presented as the norm. A disease — the “Nanophage” — and a huge war called the Great Decimation plague life in the game and cause mass casualties. This combination of illness and war leads the Chiron Corporation, the new authorities of Poland, to become the dominant force in the world.
This horrorscape is, however, a mere background narrative in the game. Presented as simple text and told in a 30-second opening scrawl, the context of this story exists only to color the gloomy atmosphere of the dimension. At the forefront is the journey of Dan Lanarzcki, the character that the player controls, whose purpose is to follow the mysterious message his estranged son Adam left him. As soon as the player sets foot into the building where the call is coming from, the entire building is locked down, forcing you, the player, to determine why you are locked in and what happened to your son.
Visually, the cyberspace is thematically grotesque. The complex is an amalgamation of deteriorating construction, neon signage, and propaganda posters. The miniscule portion of the outside world that is visible from the courtyard of the complex is overrun with massive buildings that dwarf the entire setting, and the game is blighted by ever-present rain. A relatively cliché expression of the cyberpunk genre, Observer is still incredibly effective at conveying a catastrophic dystopia that fills the player with apprehension from the get-go.
Observer is, however, an aesthetically gorgeous game. But it’s important to mention that I played it on the Xbox One gaming console. During gameplay, I ran into a number of frame rate issues. The game stuttered and stalled in places, especially when there were multiple interactable objects on screen. Fortunately, these issues damaged my immersion only a couple times. On the computer, the game seems to run fine, but if you purchase Observer on console, buyer beware.
The game, which is similar to walking simulators like Gone Home or suspending horror games like Amnesia, is split into three distinct parts. The first allows gamers to explore the apartment building on foot, speaking with tenants and following leads that are discovered from these conversations. The player then investigates specific areas of interest using distinct overlays, a feature that hints and highlights zones of interest to help move the game forward. The last segment involves jacking into neural implants and reliving the memories of individuals in order to solve the mystery.
The core of the game is to interrogate witnesses and extract what their minds are hiding — the main character’s power is to invade the minds of others. Lanarzcki talks to tenants who, when aware of his mission and powers, are terrified of the observer in an almost mystic sense because he doesn’t balk from using the tools at his disposal. While Lanarzcki isn’t supposed to use his powers on dead people, he is constantly forced to do so in order to find out more information throughout the game. Lanarzcki has to continuously bypass parts of his own conscience that stops him from this. As the game progresses, the character’s mind slowly breaks, and the game takes the player to different places with that idea. Ultimately, tactical use of the powers provided to the player is where Observer truly shines.
Along with the main plot of discovering what happened to Adam, there are secondary plots the player can find and follow. I only found two in my time testing the game, but it’s here that the game explores provocative innovations that the future might hold, such as the ethics of organ creation or the obligation of a third party in deciding what is right or wrong in a person’s view of their own life. The resolutions to these arcs are some of the highlights the game has to offer.
Together with large moments of payoff, the small conversations with the buildings’ tenants aid in expanding the fiction of the world. One of these storylines is about an ex-champion that had his augmentations taken back by the company that provided them, leaving him barely able to live without illicit drugs. Another is a family of Immaculates, a type completely devoid of any type of augments, living in the complex without any contact with the outside world. These stories, and several more, are bits of wonderfully written dialogue that fill the world with details which make it all the more terrifying due to their matter-of-fact presentation.
All of these aspects come together to form a cohesive package. What is even more impressive is how the game sticks the landing. Games of this variety often fail to create a comprehensive ending or resolve the plot threads that accumulate throughout the gameplay. Without spoiling anything, Observer leaves me wanting to jump back in, just to scope out the nuanced attributes in the game that I missed the first time around and could add to the explanation of the ending.
Observer is a dark and depressing game at a time when one might argue that we need more happiness. But for me, this game is an incredible piece of science fiction that succeeds in ways I have not seen in other mediums. Despite the technical hiccups I had, Observer is still an insight into a future I never want to be a part of but continue to find fascinating.
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