Space. It’s one of the biggest mysteries of the universe. Yes, we’ve been there countless times. Yes, we’ve figured out some of the secrets space holds. But space is so vast that there’s so much else that’s unknown and it’s often unnerving to consider. No Code’s Observation taps into that hair-raising fear.
After a space station is sent spiraling through the stars for unknown reasons, it’s left stranded, damaged, without power, and above Saturn’s orbit. Playing as the station’s AI, SAM, you must help the seemingly only remaining astronaut, Emma Fisher, find out what’s going on and find the rest of the crew.
Using the cameras and a sentient sphere on board the ship to navigate around a la something like Five Nights at Freddy’s, you’ll piece together the mystery. Did some systems just malfunction horribly? Did someone sabotage the space station? Can you trust yourself? Are you the enemy? Is it something far more sinister?
While Observation is a horror game, it’s not as pronounced in that aspect as you may imagine. This is largely a puzzle game first and foremost. All of the game revolves around solving puzzles via computer terminals and finding clues hidden in the environment. This isn’t Alien: Isolation where you’re hiding from an alien or fighting humans or androids, this is much different.
That’s not a fault, it works really well as a puzzle game. One could compare it to something like The Witness with more of an emphasis on storytelling and horror than just things to boggle your brain. Some puzzles are straight forward, some require some time and may take a while to click, and there’s one or two that I found to be a bit too obscure.
Observation is a game that doesn’t particularly hold your hand. It gives you the controls and then just pushes you out of the metaphorical nest and says “Good luck!”. There’s an objectives menu and sometimes Emma will drop hints but you’re largely on your own. You will have to be hyper-aware of your surroundings and scan every inch of every room to really make the most of Observation.
If you’re one of those people who explores every crevice in a game in hopes of collectibles or secrets, this is a game built for you in mind. Lots of solutions are hidden in claustrophobic rooms filled to the brim with boxes, computers, things placed all over the walls, and more.
On top of finding solutions, you’ll find collectibles that give you more insight into the situation at hand and fill you in on other members of the crew. Some members are romantically involved, some are seemingly hiding more than they’re letting on, and much more that really helps make the characters feel real.
So, how scary is this game? It depends on the type of person you are. If you seek constant chases, scary monsters, and other traditional horror elements, you won’t really find that here. This is much more about playing with what you don’t know, what you don’t see.
Observation seeps deep in your mind and makes you question things up until the very end. The kinds of questions that get under your skin, the kind that changes your perspective and opinions on the situation or characters at the snap of a finger, the kind that maybe you don’t want answers to.
There’s a sense of overwhelming dread as you play. There’s a lack of music that builds a sense of uneasy tension, a fear that something could just move past the camera you’re watching, even the use of lighting can make you feel creeped out. Observation is simply masterful in the ways it executes horror by not playing to genre tropes and instead being far more psychological.
Perhaps No Code’s biggest downfall in this sci-fi puzzler is how Observation can play at times. When you’re not using the station’s security cameras, you’re controlling a sphere which can move around the entire space, unlike the cameras. For a variety of reasons, these were my least favorite sections to play.
I frequently found myself getting lost because the FOV feels so zoomed in that I had no sense of direction. I couldn’t tell what was up, down, left, or right, especially because you can get turned “upside down” (if there even is a right side up in space). Sometimes I would get stuck looking at walls not because I couldn’t move but because the space was so tight and it was hard to get my bearings.
The controls can also feel sluggish and not as responsive as they should. This all may be in part of them trying to make it feel like you’re realistically moving around in zero-gravity but it still makes for an incredibly nauseating gameplay experience at times.
Observation is one of 2019’s most unique and interesting games both with its gameplay and overall execution. It delivers a unique sense of horror we typically don’t see in games, compelling puzzles, and it has a profound impact on you when the credits roll. While it can sometimes be a tad unpleasant to play with annoying, unsmooth controls and being disorienting, Observation is still a fantastic sci-fi experience.