Observer is what has slowly become an increasingly rare experience. A straightforward, no nonsense, single-player narrative game that can be finished in around 5-10 hours, and has an engaging story devoid of any tacked-on extras/downloads. It seems like a minor point, but it’s very rare that I find this kind of game, rarer still in genres I usually play (not the genres themselves specifically, just that my preferences narrow that already small selection further). A small point to mention, but an important one I feel I need to share.
With all of that in mind then, I found myself reaching the end of Observer, feeling very pleased with the experience once the credits had rolled. That feeling stuck with me because as I said, it’s a feeling I don’t have very often these days. I’m too used to logging into some kind of system, and playing amongst other people, or a never-ending storm of sidequests and checklists to complete. So it was very refreshing to come into Observer and immediately be pulled into its very thick and rich atmosphere, and lose myself in the world narratively with a singular focus in mind; find my son Adam.
You start off in your patrol car, for you see, you’re an observer. A special enforcement unit, that specifically deals in accumulating evidence from the minds of victims and suspects alike. Your mind is isolated and kept secure/secret from the outside, allowing you to enter other peoples’ memories and play out abstract representations and projections of what they remembered. It seems that the memories might not be entirely accurate, as people sometimes seem to remember events differently than how they actually happened or were reported occasionally (or at least, that’s the impression I got). The abstract nature of these sequences means that of course it’s mostly down to your interpretation, as the story (thankfully) doesn’t fill in every single blank and question you might have. It allows you to be absorbed into the world, and make of it what you will. It rejects the industry’s modern belief that you need to hand-hold the player throughout every step of the journey.
So now is where I reach the difficulty of explaining the game to you, because it’s fairly barebones as a gameplay experience, and relies heavily on its narrative, which I very much want to leave untouched in this review for your fresh playthrough. To give you an idea of what kind of story we’re talking about however (if you’re on the fence about buying it), it’s a psychological horror kind of story. You’re pursuing clues left behind of where your missing son Adam might be located. New clues suggest new events took place that confuse and rattle the brain at first, but all converge slowly into one strange string of events that led you to this moment in time.
It treads on your past as a father, and your relationship with both your wife and your son. It questions what is right in this dystopian world, and what is arguably wrong. It’s all pulled off with a finesse that ultimately brings the story to being a product, should anyone mix the aesthetics of Blade Runner, with the philosophical questions put forth by Ghost In The Shell (the animated movie, not the live-action one). It even finds time to throw in some Orwellian foundations from 1984 in there, alongside Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep (which informed Blade Runner’s design and themes). All of this is blended with an amazing soundtrack, that is very reminiscent of Ghost In The Shell during appropriate moments, and very Vangelis-like for everything else. The game’s inspiration is obvious, but not heavy-handed. One of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in a while though.
Going back to gameplay for a moment, it mostly revolves around walking from point to point, searching for clues. You do so in a manner of ways. Firstly is through the use of one of your vision-modes. You have a mode specifically for highlighting biotic clues around you, and one for electronics. Both are separated obviously, and require you to switch between them when you think you’re close to something useful.
Secondly is through hacking. There are several points where you must hack some kind of device in order to progress, or at the very least have obtained/worked-out some kind of keycode. Hacking isn’t a game in and of itself, but rather just a button you press, that fills in 2 or 3 numbers out of a total of 4, with you guessing the remaining one or two. Nothing too taxing, I promise. There’s obviously the second kind of hacking which is through the minds of others. Here, abstract realities throw all kinds of crazy visual noise at you, making you feel uneasy and never quite sure of your footing at any given moment. Very effective and one of the most impressive representations of human consciousness I’ve seen in any media.
Finally is good old fashioned handy work. Opening drawers, pulling stuff, opening doors, moving curtains. The interaction system is surprisingly nuanced in terms of what interactions you can pull off. You might be adjusting a hanging light to angle correctly at a certain point to help you see better, or you might be readjusting a machine to perform a certain task. You have to physically move these objects using the mouse or right thumbstick, so opening a door requires you to tilt the right thumbstick whilst interacting with it. It’s a surprisingly engaging system, and a welcome one since a good chunk of the game is spent performing these kinds of interactions.
The puzzles aren’t too difficult as I said, and basically just require a lot of walking around a room and interacting with everything until you finally get it. In opposition to that are the stealth sections. Again, nothing taxing, and will reset you at the beginning of that specific section in which you failed. I won’t say who/what it is you have to hide from (or else risk spoiling the story), but just know that they’re very brief, simple, and are kept away from the detective work which encompasses most of the experience. I enjoyed their brief stay, and gave me moments of actual gameplay, where there’s a potential failure state, where there were none before.
So with all of that said, there isn’t much more to cover. The sound design and soundtrack are great, the atmosphere is perfect, and it’s a bit of light horror mixed with some psychological/thriller elements. I can’t recommend it enough, especially should you find it on sale for under $20. My only gripe with the game is that it became a little too supernatural at parts for my liking. If you remember the amazing Indigo Prophecy (a.k.a Farenheit), you’ll remember that what started out as a great story, eventually devolved into a black magic, supernatural style affair. A shame, because I think this had the potential to become a perfectly dark and gritty, raw experience more closely associated with its inspiration of Blade Runner or similar. Nothing wrong with the story I’ve played through, but from a personal perspective, I would have preferred something more grounded. Having said that, I doubt it wouldn’t have had the impact it did nor stay with me as long as it has after completion, had it done what I say I would have preferred. I think that’s just me being picky about minor things at this point.
So in conclusion a great game. Light on puzzles, light on stealth, and a great story that supports the world and information spread around it. Things are hinted at and signposted a little throughout, so the more observant of you will be able to follow along a lot better than I did probably. Not many will see the few twists and turns the narrative takes towards the end, and even if you are following along nicely, the final moments set in motion a sequence which takes you a little by surprise. The ending is a last-minute binary choice, but after so much build-up and emotional investment, it has a great pay-off whichever you choose. It’s difficult to know which ending is the true-ending, but I’ll leave that for you to ponder over after the credits roll.
A very good game, in a genre I don’t usually enjoy playing, and one that people who do love that genre, will get along great with. Great setting, characters, world-building, soundtrack, art-style, narrative, and the gameplay is supporting of the narrative without threatening to hijack the experience at any time. Cruise through at your own pace, with just enough horror to keep you on your toes, but not test your limitations. Easily one of the best horror games I’ve played, and I prefer this to Resident Evil 7 if I’m honest for this kind of experience. I’m also not the kind of person who enjoys point-and-click adventure games or anything with puzzles/detective style gameplay, but even I got along great with Observer. Well worth a look!
Images Taken From: https://www.observer-game.com/