Why exactly did I purchase this title? Was I undergoing a cyberpunk withdrawal and in need of my cyberpunk fix? Possibly. Much like other titles which I am inexplicably drawn to, I had “scoped” the title online on a couple of occasions. Was it the Blade Runner, Deus Ex hangover which was starting to wear off, or the looming Project Red release? Or was it just the fresh boredom which was kicking in after my latest breakup and the creeping urge to seek the comfort of a video game to fill the emotional vacuum? Whichever it was, Observer was bought, and sampled.
The premises had been well advertised, screenshots, Youtube clips, we were dealing with a first person cyberpunk experience, no combat would be involved, there would be brain hacking. An honest proposal. So when I slipped into the skin of the predictably hoarse protagonist, and undertook what promised to be a grimy and unforgiving investigation in the futuristic backstreets of some dystopian megalopolis, the first thing that gripped me was the clunkiness of the controls and the disorienting limitations of the level design.
What is it about programming walking speed to be so slow? Even when running I felt like I was trudging through thick sludge. Couple that with the inability to jump, the tendency to snag on the slightest piece of clutter, and some weird camera effects when “accelerating”, and you have the recipe for an intensely frustrating gameplay. The game involves pointing at “clues”, some of them as small as rat droppings, and analyzing them until the camera reorients awkwardly to produce some kind of supporting information. It also involves switching between various types of visions to scan for clues, which render you effectively blind save for the occasional jarring outline. The doors only open laboriously with a click and swipe mechanism a la Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the levels consist of interconnected corridors with muddy textures and zero dynamic interactions, and are often overlayed with disorienting floating digital surfaces. Finally, some of the early interactions with NPCs are so mind numbingly slow and convoluted that I felt like I was trapped in sock drawer and struggling to breathe.
Nonetheless I persisted! I had spent $30 after all, and I intended to enjoy it despite the claustrophobia.
What started off as a fairly standard futuristic crime scene investigation took an unexpected turn when I took my first deep dive into another person’s subconscious through a technology called Dream Eater, and that’s when it downed on me: this game was not meant to be experienced as a typical first person exploration experience. It was a horror game!
Instead of a traditional storyline driven by logs, dialogues and cutscenes, Observer opts for a series of psychedelic experiences which are initiated when the player plugs into the brains of the investigation’s characters. As such, key facts are revealed amidst an avalanche of distorted images which blend memories with fantasies and trauma in a hypnotizing, disturbing and oddly satisfying experience. The delivery of the storyline as hallucinatory flashbacks is effective in that it completely cancels out the initial frustration and offers complete creative freedom unhindered by the laws of reality.
Choice nuggets of critical information are delivered in the midst of an avalanche of demented visuals such as walls made of laundry machines, accelerated time, shifting textures, nests of glowing cables, flickering screens flashing eerie frames, predatory cybernetics beasts or slithering robotic snakes and many other stressful details. And yet beneath this torrent of raw psychological data there remains something undeniably human, the familiar buzz of an office floor, the chirping of an infant, a romantic conversation, a hospital visit and other artifacts of humanity which makes the whole experience all the more tragic and emotional.
There are some moments in Observer which are truly mesmerizing, such as the sequence where the player gets to throttle the pace of a subplot involving a failed surgery, stroboscopic cybernetic limbs wiggling their way out of a human thorax, baroque interiors, spider legs and heavenly bodies worthy of Ghost in the Shell.
Unfortunately the momentum that was so masterfully choreographed dries up in the later stages of the game. The sense of exploration that, ironically, felt so confusing upon first impressions, becomes nonexistent past the halfway point and I was left with little sense of agency as I went from one room to another without any opportunity to turn back or explore my new surroundings. The sense of place that was so painstakingly established when exploring the apartment complex at the beginning of the investigation is completely thrown out of the window once the story kicks into high gear, as is the gathering of clues, as if the developers ran out of budget or were just rushing to finish the game.
The psychedelic factor also becomes a lot less disturbing, and that thrilling sensation that I had felt during the first few trips, which had led me to believe that I was looking at a true scifi horror classic, slowly receded. After a certain point it’s all tunnels and wires and an unspeakable monstrosity lurking in the shadows. The whole “human” element which made the memories so unpredictable, is also unfortunately cancelled along with the clue gathering mechanics. What is left is a rather well produced sci fi narrative with a confusing and underwhelming conclusion.
All in all I wasn’t disappointed. I was looking for a cyberpunk experience to invest in and I got one. I really enjoyed the transition from being an investigator in the dark, grim reality of day to day life in the slum of a futuristic dystopia to the horror of navigating someone else’s traumatic memories while reflecting on the ominous consequences of splicing cybernetic material with organic material. In a sense Observer could have been a philosophical tale about the nature of our relationship with technology, and the expression of existential angst in the face of a rapidly modernizing society where the human soul is at the mercy of beastlike machines and faceless corporations. But it didn’t quite make it. A worthy effort nonetheless.