I Played >observer_.
When you think about games that you’d deem “great” or even “very good”, what are the first things you think of? Is it the graphics? The controls? The polish? The balance of power? The sound? The story? How much of any of that are you willing to sacrifice in one of those columns to have the rest of any of those (or any other wildcard characteristics) take a spotlight so bright that you barely miss the absence of any of those things.
Enter >observer_, a game from Bloober Team that maybe highlights none of those things I initially mentioned that are elements of games that I first think of when I think of great games. And what I know I left out that is mostly the number one thing that makes a game endlessly memorable or completely forgettable, that this game has in absolute spades. We’re talking about atmosphere.
At its core, this is a mystery game controlled similarly to a “walking simulator”, where you (Daniel Lazarski, voiced by Rutger Hauer) are a rundown, hardboiled police officer called to a tenement building by your son. You find an unidentifiable dead body, sending the building into a lockdown. Not only out of the fear of it being your son, but also out of duty, you begin to interrogate the tenants of this building to get information about anything they’ve been hearing, and the story puts itself together through the leads you’re following. The most interesting part of the game are the times when you are tasked with hacking into the brains of different victims and going through an abstract virtual landscape that becomes a blend of esoteric visualscapes, defragmented memories and more character development of the main character as some of his experiences flood and meld with those of the victim.
This game’s controls are loose and stodgy, like your character’s limbs are marionette arms with crocs for hands. The doors and drawers you can pull open have little weight to them, and the switches and levers you pull have a similar feel to them. Luckily, most of what we’re doing these things for is worldbuilding, for context. Running, crouching, these moves feel more like they’re tucked in for quality of life purposes rather than function. You never truly feel like you’re in the body of Lazarksi, instead controlling him like a RC drone with gummy flight mechanics. Despite all of this, the puzzles we have to solve are straightforward and utilitarian enough that we don’t need pianist fingers or swift feet to make it by. The pockets of stealth in the game are few and far between, but they did present some of the biggest difficulty spikes in the game, though with trial and error it became clear that some patience and focus was all it took to get past them. After some long stretches of the game allowing you to glide through with no problems, it took a moment to shift back into the place where I had to pay attention to the actions of one of the only other sentient presences in the game. So controls? Sacrificed.
Visually, the game is boxy and flat, but not in the cool and stylized Minecraft way. This feels like a game created with a small budget, a gray and green and brown world built with cobbled resources and functional aesthetics. This does take place in a broken down tenement, so a lot of the low lighting, a lot of the emergency green, a lot of the ‘cardboard boxes’ blocking hallways fit the scene and the environment. And while it did seem to make sense in its place, it still gave a little bit of a stripped down feeling, like watching the lights turn on in a laser tag place or a haunted house. There was very little polish, very little attempt to make some of the details really feel complete. The lighting of these rooms and these locales though added to the all-powerful atmosphere though. Industrial work lighting creates myriad pockets and labyrinths of dark, hallways of emergency guidance lighting create runways of terror, waffled and cubed lights of server towers act as lighthouses in seas of black. As a horror experience, these stages are exactly what you want, and when the payoff of what you end up being met with after following all of these whispered pulses is just a silhouette of what used to be a person and/or a motherboard, it’s worth that mechahuman fear. Do the people you see look like people? Eh. Do they move their mouths when they speak? Technically. At the end of the day, by the time I got to the end of this game, was I worrying about those visuals? Not in the slightest.
Visually where this game shines is the composition of their hacked memory nightmares and the themes that they bring to light. We watch emergency room conversations, 9–5 office work sisyphage, body modification, dismemberment, slow walks through childhood homes… and as I was making my way through these experiences, I felt no type of way about the quality and care put into the fidelity of these graphics, instead staring slack jawed and wide eyed at the incredible imagination and creativity put to work by Bloober. The things they were showing me were carefully crafted in their mind, attention to finding acute ways to unsettle me, to show the raw side of humans pushed to their limit as addicts, and finding ways to focus their thoughts on how exactly to push the narrative to a place where I, as a player, could still understand the message they were broadcasting while still thinning out the clarity and making that message as visually abstract as possible. Hacking into these minds that I saw in this game and walking through them were some of the coolest moments I’ve had in gaming, a veritable 4d museum of austere experience and sallow fear. So were “graphics” sacrificed? Sure. Did I miss them? No way.
One of the cool things that happens in movies/television/games when introducing early cybernetics is the fact that a great deal of it is wonky, and wiry and gonky. Lots of LED lighting shines on the outlines of the prosthetic. Exposed machinery whirrs loudly when the appendage is in use. They all have that Robot Club Science Fair aesthetic, but instead of Smash Bots, it’s old Uncle Luther’s New Android Arm. This game embraces that pretty heavily, showing maintenance units with happy faces drawn on them, lots of screens with code running heavily on their main monitor, loose wiring causing speech impediments and a great heaping deal of neon. But where a lot of this threadbare architecture sings is in the game’s audio. On the surface (especially without headphones), much of this game has flat audio. There are Loud Parts that are meant to startle you and send you back in your chair, there is the obligatory horror game children’s laughter, there’s the short circuiting of everything under the sun sending shots and sparks out at you when you get too close. But nothing deeply meaningful. The voice acting for 95% of the characters is mailed in at economy rates, spoken clearly and vapidly as written, without emotion but instead with Adlib Comedy Class earnestness to the point where you can almost hear the actor look back at the director saying “should I do it again?” As is the theme with so much of this review, an even half of this game lacks spirit, lacks polish, and lacks a distinct sense of completion. But again, as is the theme with so much of this review, what it did right paid off massively.
When I first started playing this game, there was a ton of clipping and heavily distorted noise throughout every element, including my own character’s speech. It encroached so heavily to the point where I did an internet search and asked a few friends who had played the game, just to see if it was in there on purpose or if it was something I was experiencing out of a bad glitch. From what I can tell from every other session outside of my first sitting with it, it was indeed a glitch, but that sense of shoddy wiring, unfinished, crossing-the-wires-to-jumpstart-a-car audio entered me deeper into a world where everything felt broken, everything felt on the verge of crashing and restarting itself into some new consciousness. The score of the game is used sparsely, but is used impactfully. Long low cries and groans beckon out from rooms just past the corridor you’re in. Everything is frayed on the outsides and it adds to the atmosphere of the game. I believe if there was a bit more attention paid to the details, it would have stolen the soul from the game.
So was this game shitty? Are all of my complaints grounded? I don’t know. I think so? But ya know what? I really loved it. The kinds of feelings that this game made me feel were stronger and more distinct than some other games with ten times the production value. The overall experience was very distinct, and it accomplished the mood, the atmosphere and the discomfort so so well. Through so many of the dream hack sequences, virtually all of them, were images and interactions that went directly for the vision of the team at work, truly creating a creepy, nightmarish and anxiety-inducing environment.
Certainly not for everyone, but if you’re willing to take a chance on an 8–10 hour game that will earn your love, even through attrition, >observer_ is well worth your time.