Anyone looking to get their sci-fi, story based gameplay fix on, should look no further than Bloober Team’s >observer_ game, which we will refer to as Observer, without those special characters, from now on. It offers a compelling story set in a terribly dystopian world where technology and greed have far outpaced our collective humanity. Thankfully, the dreary world presented is filled with lots of cool shiny things to look at and experience, so if you don’t think about how horrible the setting presented by Observer actually is, or how bad the lives of the people forced live there probably are, you should enjoy your stay.
The main character in this first-person adventure is voiced by the legendary Rutger Hauer. His voice acting is mesmerizing. I think he could be interesting if he were reading the phonebook, which is a good thing because some of the longer dialog sequences within the game might start to grind on a little bit too long with a lesser actor. They kind of do in a few places within Observer too, but Hauer keeps things moving.
Observer’s gameplay is probably best described as a cross between a walking simulation and a story-based adventure. You get to do a lot more here than in games like Dear Esther or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, figuring out puzzles at different points and deciding exactly where to point your investigation, but there is still a lot of walking around and talking to people, or at least talking to people through closed doorways. There are also a few hide and seek sequences where someone, or something, is trying to hunt you down.
Using Hauer was a brilliant move because of his Blade Runner credentials. Observer really wants players to make the connection between that game and the classic (and now new) movie. Little hints referring to Blade Runner or paying homage to it are within the game for fans to find and appreciate, though mostly the similar dystopian world run by technology corporations is the biggest similarity.
You play a futuristic police officer named Dan Lazarski with seemingly supernatural, technology-based powers. You see, everyone in the world of Observer is trying to escape reality in one way or another. The use of drugs is heavily implied, and are even the subject of a side quest you can obtain. However, the main drug of choice is a hyper virtual reality that is indistinguishable from actual reality while people are playing. Who wouldn’t love something like that? But in Observer, it’s given to just about anyone who wants it. It’s implied that the main mega corporation supplies the VR to workers for free as a way of keeping them passive and compliant. Work a 12-hour shift doing menial tasks for low pay for the corporation? No worries. You get to become a daring spaceship captain, or a Casanova with endless lovers, or whatever else you can think up when you get home, courtesy of your free lifelike VR machine.
Which brings us to Lazarski. He is described as someone who can enter a person’s dreams. However, his real power is physically connecting into people in the same way that they connect into their VR machines. With almost everyone wired up for access, Lazarski can plug into them and explore their brains, as well as their embedded hard drives, and drift through their thoughts and memories. The cops employ him to use this power to solve crimes, while the corporation (it’s implied) use their influence to have him and other Observers ferret out secrets.
As such, the game is played in two different environments. There is the real world, which mostly consists of a multi-story apartment building that goes on lockdown as soon as the story begins, trapping you inside, and the virtual worlds of people’s memories that you force your way into.
This sets up a dichotomy, not unlike in games like Silent Hill, where reality is bleak and depressing, yet relatively safe, while the dream worlds are fantastic and bizarre, and possibility very dangerous. The really brilliant thing about Observer is that those two worlds begin to subtly mesh over time. You see, we learn that Observers tend to go crazy and wash out of the service. They are kept sane by injecting a blue drug into their systems from time to time, which levels out their vital signs and grounds them back in reality. If you go too long between injections, you start to see artifacts on your screen, like the snow of an old television set. And then, when you start to experience truly bizarre things in the real world, you are always going to wonder if you are somehow really stuck in a dream world, something I was convinced was happening thoughout most of the second half of the game.
Back to the mystery at hand. Lazarski arrives at the rundown tenement building looking for his wayward son, but finds a headless body instead. Just then, the building goes on lockdown, which means all connections to the outside world are severed and the doors are sealed. This prevents Lazarski from doing things like checking DNA samples to see if his son is the victim, talking with experts or calling for backup. It also locks all the residents in their apartments if they were home when the lockdown started. Apparently, there is an old technology plague, and whenever a hint of it is detected in a building, the entire structure is locked down to prevent it from spreading. The plague never actually contributes to the plot much, other than it being the reason you can’t leave the building.
A lot of the gameplay thus consists of walking up to apartment doors and asking the residents to talk through electronic mini-televisions, which are like futuristic peep holes. Here we learn a lot about the world, none of it good. Most of the people in the building are C-class citizens who perform unskilled tasks for the corporation. Observer has a real Brave New World feel to it in that way. If you read some of the resident’s computer diaries, you will find all kinds of different plots they are undertaking to try to move up to a B-class citizen, a goal that is extremely difficult to achieve. Many residents are also highly neurotic. Some can’t understand that they are no longer inside their VR devices even though the power has been cut. Most are depressed and a few are violent, though they thankfully can’t hurt you through their doors.
There are also some really interesting interactions, like one with a family of religious “purists” who refuse to implant any kind of technology inside their bodies (and thus are not worried about the plague). Lazarski pities them, even though his life by comparison is not that great. And at one point a sex robot answers the door because her master is not at home and the lockdown let her break out of her charging pod. Lazarski comments that he is not going to waste his time talking with a robot, to which she says, under her breath, “because that might humanize me.” When he asks her to repeat herself, she instead says “feel free to make use of me!” Observer is clever like that.
You can enter some apartments, and some residents do have useful information. A few will give you clues or even side quests. It’s not all that difficult, but you do need to figure out a few things to advance the plot, so keep your thinking caps handy as you play. I found the in-game notebook to be less than helpful, so took my own notes as I went along.
Unlike most of the real-world interactions, the dream worlds can be deadly. A few require you to play hide and seek with a killer memory, crouching down behind desks and tables and trying to keep out of the light produced by the murderer for example. If you die however, you only have to replay perhaps 30 seconds or a minute over to try again, so it’s annoying, but not too much of a damper on the fun.
In the end, Observer is a well-made sci-fi and cyberpunk type adventure that is both original and fun to play, assuming you like games that are deep on story, and a little bit shallow in other areas like hardcore action. I predict that Observer will one day be thought of as a classic title, and hope the game, or at least the game world, earns enough for Bloober Team to warrant a sequel, which it richly deserves. Besides, I want to explore the thought-provoking world they have created outside of that crummy tenement house!