Observation Review – Annihilation
It’s not surprising that the minds which gave birth to a game like Observation have a history with unconventional storytelling.
A brief glance at the ‘About’ tab on the No Code Studio website will tell you everything you need to know about the Scotland based team. It’s small, sharply intelligent and hungry.
Having already snagged a BAFTA Award, No Code has cut its teeth with two successful titles. Now the hotly anticipated third game Observation is here and the sky seems to be the limit for the growing team.
Observation spins an engaging, sometimes harrowing, tale which isn’t afraid to delve into the darker recesses of the human psyche. The game is an examination of humanity’s drives, the limits of science and the bonds that tie us.
Be they romantic, platonic or parental.
Although its narrative ambitions weigh down the third act somewhat, there is no doubting that Observation reaches for the stars.
Observation gives players control over a hyper-competent artificial intelligence named S.A.M (Systems Administration and Maintenance). S.A.M’s primary directive is to assist the occupants of the space station Observation who are placed in Earth’s low orbit for ostensibly simple scientific research.
The game begins mid-reboot for S.A.M as you become keenly aware of two things. Something has gone terribly wrong on the station and a woman named Emma Fisher is trapped in an airlock.
In the opening half an hour or so before the title credits kick in, Observation meticulously introduces you to the kind of experience you’re about to have. Once Emma is freed from the airlock, she and S.A.M begin working together to fully restore SAM’s functionality and figure out exactly what has gone wrong on the station.
During this time you’ll get a feel for how controlling an AI will work as well as establish a bond with Emma which will drive much of the game’s plot. Observation is very deliberate with this early part of the game, rolling out puzzle mechanics in a way that gently ramps up tension while also serving as a tutorial of sorts.
This time spent getting acclimatised to the way S.A.M controls is a necessary step in introducing players to the game’s unique mechanics.
Observation cleverly uses its AI premise to allow for a light interaction mechanic between S.A.M and Emma. Moments after launching into the game you’ll be introduced to Response Mode, a means through which you can make limited choices for how S.A.M will talk to Emma.
Given the robotic nature of S.A.M, these options are understandably limited but the mechanic is used to great effect for puzzles and some surprisingly moving story beats in the latter half of the game.
Rolling With the Punches
Observation’s opening section also establishes the game’s ability to adapt to your choices and even failures. With the exception of a stealth sequence toward the end of the game, my progress was never sacrificed because I made a mistake.
Instead, Observation accommodates your failures and continues regardless. The choice to make a thriller without a fail state could have been disastrous but No Code has deftly sidestepped difficulty gating while still delivering a tense experience.
Tutorial elements of the opening sequence aside, Observation wisely uses this early time with the player to lay the foundation for its larger themes and tone. The station is immediately claustrophobic and isolating, despite the fact that technology feels just like you’d imagine its real-world counterpart to.
There’s a tactility to the level design which makes the first big story revelation all the more unsettling. You are immediately put on the back foot as you begin to question the role you’re about to play in the events to come.
Casting players as the AI aboard a space station, as opposed to the human inhabitants, delivers some organic limitations and surprising freedoms. While most narrative/puzzle experiences would have you wondering about your environment scouring for clues and the like, Observation, for a large majority of the time, bolts you to a wall.
Inside each segment of the space station are typically three fixed camera angles offering different perspectives on the room. Once S.A.M assumes control of a given room you’ll be able to swivel these cameras, zooming in and out to get a better look at your surroundings.
This makes your role in events feel voyeuristic almost, doubly so once S.A.M makes connections with the various laptops he finds around the place and begins to sift through the personal data of the crew.
The information obtained through these computers and from various other sources around the station is stored in his memory core. This core is part of S.A.M’s base operating system and requires players to manually link together seemingly disparate data to restore pieces of S.A.M’s memory.
Doing so will offer up solutions to certain puzzles and fill in some of the gaps regarding the missing crew members and their relationships before the game’s inciting incident.
Bring Yourself Back Online
Eventually, all of S.A.M’s functionality will be restored and players will have a fascinating tapestry of systems at their fingertips. Pressing the PS4 controller touchpad will bring up S.A.M’s operating system which gives access to a station map, crew information, communications link and more.
Each tab in this menu allows you to explore different elements of the station, though primarily you’ll be using the game’s exceptional map to navigate the camera network and locate whatever Emma needs.
In addition to his full suite of programming, S.A.M is also able to move into a drone orb which allows you to freely roam about the station. This small orb is used sparingly and to great effect throughout the game, giving you some breathing room and autonomy at just the right times to break up the pacing.
Small touches like the static tinted startup when first jumping into the orb or a crack in the lens after an action sequence adds another layer of immersion to the mechanic. Time spent in the drone is freeing in a sense but before long you’ll find yourself wanting to retreat to the safety of the walls around you.
I Can’t Let You Do That, Emma
Although Emma is occasionally happy for S.A.M to pursue his own interests about the station, you will be asked to complete various tasks for her. Observation‘s puzzles are another extension of the game’s premise and quasi-realistic aesthetic.
These segments of the game primarily focus on basic logic puzzles, pattern recognition and the occasional well-timed button input. Despite the repeated use of certain puzzles and a couple which felt perhaps too precise, Observation‘s problems were always satisfying to solve.
Beyond the interactivity of the premise, the S.A.M concept does very occasionally strain against the overarching plot in some minor ways. The AI illusion is at times discarded for the sake of a more cinematic view of events, moving beyond the restricted viewpoints of the cameras.
It’s a style choice which is entirely understandable, especially given where the plot eventually goes, but it never failed to take me ever so slighty out of the experience.
Science and Fiction
Observation is also a celebration of richly detailed level design and a confident commitment to an overarching aesthetic. The station and much of the technology within feels ripped from both this reality and the long lost 70s cinematic version of contemporary sci-fi.
It’s the tactile clicking of buttons and complex hud displays from Alien expertly woven in with inspiration taken directly from NASA’s International Space Station. The game uses this familiar feel to disarm players first before reminding you with devilish precision just how far from this reality Observation is taking you.
Not long after the masterful introductory segment, Observation crashes headfirst into title credits which would feel right at home in your favourite Netflix series. This sequence was scored by Robin Finck of Nine Inch Nails and it is dripping with dread-inducing imagery and oppressive tones. It establishes the mood immediately and from here Observation rockets forward with escalating, lavish visual set pieces.
Observation’s visual language only intensifies the further you delve into the game. The clinical nature of the station’s technology is recontextualised through foreign signals which distort S.A.M’s OS with cryptic messages. Deeper still, as the station begins to experience a kind of digital haunting, primary colours begin to bleed neon and even basic symbols begin to inspire a creeping horror.
The gradually intensifying visuals are paired with an equally strong showing from the game’s sound design engineer and music composer Omar Khan. The co-founder of No Code Studio has delivered an experience where every whirl of machinery or thump of base in the soundtrack can push you to the edge of your seat.
If you can I’d recommend playing this game with a good pair of headphones as the immersion provided by the audio work is stellar.
While S.A.M may be a fascinating means to new styles of gameplay, Emma Fisher remains the human connecting to the overarching narrative. Kezia Burrows (Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Alien: Isolation) delivers a tremendous performance as Fisher, imbuing her with a balanced sense of fragility and strength in the face of unprecedented adversity.
Burrows’ chemistry with co-star and voice of S.A.M, Anthony Howell (Vampyr, Anthem) is crucial to the plot and the two play off each other brilliantly.
Burrows and Howell succeed, at least in part, thanks to the tight script work by writer Jon McKellen. Observation is keenly human in its delivery of very in-human subject matter, a great strength which the third act struggles to keep in focus. As events proceed to the climax, Fisher’s characterisation is altered in ways which serve the plot.
However, the pacing of a third act doesn’t allow for the kind of development needed to make the changes feel earned. Both leads still absolutely deliver during this sprint to the conclusion but the script suffers regardless.
Emma is also beautifully rendered with only a couple of minor blemishes. There is a realism to the faces in Observation that is flying only slightly above the uncanny valley, threatening to undo certain closeup driven story beats. Fortunately, it never quite tips the experience all the way into the valley though the lip-syncing during several sequences was noticeably out of sync.
This, along with some egregious screen tearing, are the only visual problems in an otherwise gorgeous game.
Bicycle Built for Two
For whatever visual blemishes show up, or for however far the third act strays, Observation remains a deeply fascinating experience.
Through the lens of an AI, No Code has developed a unique way to tell a sci-fi tale and further its work with unconventional narrative delivery.
The conclusion of Emma and S.A.M’s story is a fully realised, existential fever dream that left me feeling like much, much more than just an observer.
Observation was reviewed on PS4 using a digital code provided by the publisher.
Observation Review – Annihilation
Unique narrative framing - 10/10
Outstanding presentation - 9/10
Great lead performances - 9/10
Engaging puzzles - 9/10
Atmospheric soundtrack - 8/10