By Ronald Gordon
One of the biggest fears we have about the rise of technology is that computer systems and Artificial Intelligences will go rogue or adapt to something on their own. But what if you were the system that goes haywire? Why do you think a computer system would stray from its intended purpose?
Observation is a sci-fi thriller game developed by No Code and published by Devolver Digital. Here, you play as the Systems Administration & Maintenance Operating System, S.A.M. for short, which controls a space station named Observation. (S.A.M. seems like a riff on or homage to HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey“.) Your original objective was to keep everything online and working for the crew as you orbited Earth but….things don’t always go according to plan.
The story starts out as you boot up and meet Emma Fisher, a crew member who works on the station, who’s just as confused about what happened as you are. After getting a run-down of the situation and repairing some power issues, you find some clues. Due to a random malfunction in the S.A.M. OS mainframe, you somehow wound up with most of your systems offline and a corrupted memory core. If that isn’t bad enough, the Observation has somehow moved out of Earth’s orbit and is now several hundred miles away from Saturn! Did I mention that power to the station is almost nonexistent and you can’t seem to find any of the other crew members? Because it is, and you can’t. Isn’t that just wonderful? It’s up to you and Emma to repair most of the systems on the station and figure out what went wrong with your mainframe. This won’t be easy because of the low power situation, and because the station is in need of repairs – such as fixing the power problem throughout the station, getting the communications systems up and running, or finding someone besides Emma to say the least. After some digging you find that all of this may, or may not, be entirely your doing.
Once you’ve made it into the game a bit, you discover that the original mission objective for Observation and its crew was to investigate a mysterious anomaly that occurred outside of Earth’s orbit. This anomaly happened at the same time across several locations, each of them being a different star. It’s completely baffled the scientific world. It just so happens that this anomaly occurs for a reason: it wanted S.A.M. to bring Emma to Saturn and caused him to do so. As for the reason why, well, I can only say that it involves what appears to be Multiverse theory and numerous breaks in Space-Time.
The game’s controls are fairly simple: You can use the station’s camera system to move around and access different parts of the station, while also activating other systems and dipping into laptops for the lost information and audio logs that S.A.M. had stored before the accident. The game really makes you feel like you yourself are the computer system, because every time you interact with a new item, you have to first add it to your mainframe by pressing a short set of buttons that pop up in a sequence. There are also certain pieces of equipment that require an authentication code or that require you to complete a sort of minigame in order to use them.
The most common of these minigames is the hatch controls, which allow you to open and close certain doorways. But you can also dip into the system’s mainframe and manually lock and unlock doors by tracing a certain pattern of boxes to form a line. However, that means you also have to have the memory and the reaction speed of a computer system, because there are a few quick time events and a LOT of numbers and patterns to remember.
I personally enjoyed the game because of the whole idea of being the computer that controls basically everything. Normally in a game, you only get the viewpoint of the person experiencing what the system can do, but in Observation you actually get to be the system and get to explore its capabilities all on your own. You get to mess around with the doors you have to travel through, manually engage certain systems and procedures that you learn about, and even jettison damaged parts of the station by diving into the system and activating the protocol.
The game doesn’t have much music except for some dramatic tones, like the dragged-out notes of a futuristic-sounding instrument, or some eerie sounds, similar to nails on a chalkboard, that play during certain scenes to drive home the terror of what you’re experiencing. The overall design of the game and the models of the characters are well crafted and show genuine care for such a revolutionary idea. The story is heart-throbbingly intriguing and is one of the many reasons why I had to see this game through to the end. I’d highly suggest it to anyone who wants a sci-fi thriller that’ll repeatedly push them to the edge of their seats in anticipation, only to throw them back in shock every time.
Freshman intern Ronald Gordon is creating the City Tech College chapter of the New York Videogame Critics Circle.