Between Amazon’s Twitch Prime and the various Humble Bundle stuff I’ve been a part of, I own a ton of games I’ve never even heard of. I decided to start running my way through them. First on the list, because I organized it alphabetically, was the oddly titled >observer_. Looking at its Playstation Store page, I see the game bills itself as a ‘Cyberpunk Horror’, with the tagline “What would you do if your fears were hacked” which is not quite accurate to what actually goes on in the game. But looking at the guts of the game, what really is >observer_?
It’s cyberpunk as hell, is what it is. Ugly technomodifications are commonplace, corporations act more like government, a high degree of enforced social stratification, Rutger Hauer is there, you get the whole cyberpunk shebang. You play as Daniel Lazarski, one of the titular Observers, members of the corporate-owned police force who jack into the chips in people’s heads to experience their memories in abstract form. He gets a call from his estranged son in which he seems to be needing help, which he tracks back to the most run down future apartment building you’ve ever seen. Tracking things down there, he finds a headless corpse in his son’s room, with plenty of evidence of foul play around. Shortly afterwards, the system detects the technoplague in that building, and locks the whole place down in quarantine.
>observer_ was made by Bloober Team, the same folk who made Layers of Fear, a game I actually own twice but likewise have never played. From what I understand, though, it’s somewhat similar in gameplay. It hews close to the whole Environmental Narrative/Walking Simulator thing. When you’re not forcing your way into people’s memories, you’re pretty much just exploring the apartment building you find yourself locked in, searching out clues to lead you to the killer. It wouldn’t be cyberpunk if you didn’t have technology to help you on that, and true to form, you’ve got three types of visions to work in there. Night-vision is the obvious one, but you have a filter that highlights and gives extra information on all the technological objects in your view, and a filter for the biological objects as well. Using these, you can pick up traces that are otherwise invisible to the eye, autopsy the other bodies you find, get a small degree of specified X-ray vision, and more. The core of the gameplay is largely linear, you’re just moving along the path, seeing the sights, and picking up bits of information here and there that lead you to the next place to go.
Things get shaken up quite a bit when you’re breaking into people’s heads. At least in terms of tone. They’re still crazy linear, and there’s usually much less for you to figure out and more just walking from place to place, but really that’s where this game shines. You get into people’s heads and you can see their memories. But it’s not clear, and it’s not direct, and it’s beautifully abstracted. It’s where the game gets into the whole spooky freaky stuff it trades on. The imagery it gets into is rather disturbing in the best of times, even when it’s delivering the more mundane moments in these people’s lives. Early on in the story, our dear Lazarski, cut off from backup and with his son at risk, jacks into someone under situations that are supposed to be dangerous and harmful, and he actually has to disengage the safeties on his system to do so. This has horrible effects on him, and those same effects he sees in other people’s minds start showing up in reality as well, as the lines between reality and his own mind start breaking down. The visual glitches and imagery you see as this state takes hold forms some of the more interesting parts of the game.
>observer_ does explore a lot of the ramifications of the cyberpunk setting it’s using in interesting, albeit generally shallow, ways. You see the effects of people getting addicted to VR, what happens as body modification gets more extensive, the idea of people choosing to go without implants and being thought of as fringe for it. Most of it is explored in brief conversations, so again, you don’t get to go super deep into it, but you do get some really interesting ideas coming through there.
Some places call >observer_ a horror game. Some stick with thriller. I find it a little hard to place. The game wants to be scary. If it was a movie, what it does might have succeeded. Not so much as a game thought. Part of it might be how limited it is in scope. It feels a lot like it was built under limitations, like a game jam or a NaNo thing. They had a set amount of time and/or resources they were wanting to keep this within, and they stuck with that. There’s not a whole lot of assets here. In fact, there’s only two NPCs that you see outside of cutscenes, two enemy types (of which one is only in one scene), with nearly all your interactions taking place through communicators or beyond doors so you don’t actually interact with much more than voices. You have to stealth by the enemies, but the main enemy is incredibly simple to get by once you learn the rules it operates with, and it becomes clear some time after they’re introduced that there’s nothing that’s going to happen to you outside of those enemies. Granted, game overs are really bad for maintaining a horror environment, because they completely ruin immersion, but there has to at least be the threat that the bad things are going to do bad things to you, and the monsters here are so disconnected with anything that they don’t do it. It ends up being a scary game without much in the way of threat to it. It can get very tense, but that lack of threat keeps it from being very frightening.
It’s also not a very clean game. Your eyes are robotic, which gives it an excuse to be throwing a lot of visual glitches at you, many of which can be somewhat headache inducing, to be honest. Problems come in when there’s plenty of actual glitches as well. And it’s hard to tell what’s a real glitch and what’s an in-story glitch. There was a point in time where I used up all the ‘stop freaking my eyes out’ medicine I had to no effect, then continued on, frustrated at the designer’s choice, only to find out later that it was something that wasn’t really supposed to be happening. Some time later, I spent a good ten minutes in a completely black room trying to figure out what to do, before checking out a walkthrough and figuring out that the game just failed to load. Kind of put a damper on the whole thing.
Overall, I’d say I had a decent time with it. Especially knowing nothing about the game going into it, it was a very interesting experience, and you see some real bursts of creativity there. It’s probably worth saying that, judging by online reviews, the people who like this game really like this game. I didn’t quite go that far, but if you’re into cyberpunk and environmental narrative spookiness, maybe it’s your cuppa.
I like cyberpunk, and it sounds like the game has some interesting themes about possible use of VR in the future. Not a big fan of horror, though. I understand why some people like it, but I usually try to play games to relax these days, and horrific imagery does just the opposite for me.
Horror games can be a lot of things. But if they’re relaxing as anything more than just part of the process of keying you up again, they’re really not doing their thing right.
As you suggest, >observer_ sounds like another one of those cases where the developers didn’t fully grasp what makes a good story in this medium. In terms of content, I have to admit it comes across as a lot of what I find really tedious about 2010s science fiction. Combining that with the dire walking simulator movement sounds like a really bad combination. These kinds of works certainly have their fans, but they tend not to have anything to offer for anyone who wasn’t on board with them in the first place.
Plot-wise, they could have had it. There’s definitely substance here. And I’ll say the game does have some very solid moments where it really conveys the ‘things are wrong and I don’t know what’s real anymore’. If it had some more time and resources, it really could have been a lot more effective.
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