Observer Review – Head horror
In a world where the notion of privacy is practically dead, Observer is a game that feels like it might be chillingly prescient.
While this game mixes elements of horror, cyberpunk and neo-noir in a surreal detective story, it has a lot to say about data theft and the invasive powers of authority.
Set in a world where corporate rule has supplanted governments, special police units called Observers, have both the legal right and the technology to hack the memories of suspects and cadavers in the pursuit of wrapping up a case.
This activity is not called data theft. It’s called ‘interrogation’.
This aspect in Observer is one of the best things about it. As players explore the neon-encrusted, rain-slicked hellhole slum much of the action is set in, they’ll encounter clues, data, characters and environments that are indicative of a society in which crushing authority rules unchecked.
The fact that the game’s protagonist Daniel Lazarski is an Observer, and thus an agent of this oppression, adds a neat moral wrinkle to the proceedings.
Observer opens with Daniel receiving a phone call from his son, Adam, which shocks and intrigues him because Adam passed away a while back. Daniel traces the call to a tenement building in a nasty part of town and heads to the apartment from which it emanated.
Once inside, he finds that the flat’s occupant was working on something that had attracted the unwanted attention of Chiron, the mega-corporation that rules the world. Suddenly, the tenement goes into lockdown, severing Daniel’s communication with his precinct. Then a body turns up…
Players and sci-fi wonks alike can spot myriad influences Observer wears on its sleeve. The detective work (which involves scanning items using two different types of vision) isn’t a million miles away from the Arkham games, the memory hacking recalls Remember Me and several plot themes feel like a nod to the Deus Ex series.
Perhaps the biggest influence on the game is Philip K Dick – both the man’s books and the movies they’ve spawned. The notion of playing with memories – and the subsequent fallout for those who do – was a theme that popped up rather regularly in Dick’s novels. Observer even contains a couple of cheeky references to Blade Runner – not the least of which is the fact that Rutger Hauer provides the voice for Daniel.
But unlike another game released recently that involves head trips and horror, Observer feels like a cohesive whole rather than a clumsy assembly of influences.
This is because the world building is superb, even though Observer’s action is confined to a relatively small part of it. Rather than try to wrong-foot the player at every turn, Observer’s characters are placed in a recognisable and believable environment that helps drive and inform the plot, so certain parts of the narrative don’t feel like a contrivance plugged in by the developers.
For example, as Daniel hacks the memories of several suspects, the tech he uses to do so starts throwing curveballs. Reality and memory residuals start blending together and the player is left questioning what’s real and what isn’t.
Given that Daniel has to medicate himself to lower his heart-rate due to the stress placed on it by the tech, and the fact that he takes the safeguards off in order to hack one suspect, the merging of the real and the nightmarish is supported by the plot, rather than simply plonked in front of the player with no real explanation. Nearly every development in the game’s story wouldn’t work without being grounded in Observer’s cyber-noir world.
That having been said, there are a couple of sections Observer could have done without, and they involve memory hack sequences in which Daniel has to hide from an unkillable foe. Whether this is done to add another element to the horror, or put in place a fail state so Observer can avoid being branded a walking simulator, is unclear.
What is clear is that they’re the most boring and frustrating parts of the game. Ironically for a game billed as ‘horror’, Observer stops being frightening when it apes other horror games.
Observer – Verdict
But this issue aside, Observer is a solid and atmospheric piece of work. If you’re a fan of cyberpunk, dystopian worlds or hard sci fi, it’s well worth picking up a copy. Coming from completely out of left field, here is a game that takes a hard unblinking look at how authority, when allowed to be invasive, can hurt not just the society it controls, but even the enforcers of its power. Let’s just hope it’s not as prescient as it seems.