Observation was announced back in October 2018. That’s not a long time exactly, but given the industry’s inclination toward heavy advertising (or at least sharing of info) and, let’s say oversharing of details about its games, I have been impressed with how No Code and Devolver Digital have teased this sci-fi thriller without really revealing anything of narrative importance. The essentials were shared and various gameplay details, but the fact that I was surprised by, not just the narrative, but partly the tone of the game as well, makes me appreciate what a good job they’ve done of keeping things together while presenting a genuinely mysterious game. And in my opinion that’s exactly how to best enjoy Observation – with a limited knowledge of what you’re getting into – as what Observation does best is keep you on your toes until the very end.

You play as S.A.M, an artificial intelligence system that controls the space station Observation. Floating above earth, Observation’s multinational team are performing research into a variety of things, however at the game’s opening S.A.M awakes (or boots, if you will) to an empty station, other than its medical officer Dr Emma Fisher, who has put you back online. You’ve lost some of your system functions and memory stores, and Dr Fisher is none the wiser of the situation either. As such, she sets out to try and figure out where the rest of the crew are, utilising you along the way to help fix problems and search for signs of life.

Initially, and for most of the game, you only have access to a limited range of cameras. From these you can scan the surroundings for objects of interest. Dr Fisher will usually give you an instruction to find or fix something, and so generally you will be looking for control panels, computers, etc – whatever gives you access or the ability to solve her problem. For example, in one instance you need to enable the station’s crew tracker, so to do this you must find the various sensors and fix them, then active them all from its main console.

The way the game actually plays is quite immersive given the context of the game. Cameras have a limited view, and interacting with items and systems is presented as a technical task. In reality it isn’t very technical – you aren’t expected to engage in actual IT or mathematics – but entering numbers, moving sliders, and generally just how the HUD and menus are presented feels very apt for a “system administration maintenance” AI.

Of course, beyond the challenge of finding your objective through the cluttered corridors of the station, many of the systems you engage with require you to solve light puzzles to move forward. These can be simple ‘match the pattern’ type puzzles – for example, to unlock some doors you look at schematics and try to copy the pattern – and others require a bit more concentration, like working out what number to input in the correct in order. None of the puzzles are actually that difficult, and the main challenge comes from the game refusing to hold your hand along the way. Dr Fisher will tell you briefly what she needs, but it’s up to you to sift through the cameras in the various areas and find the solution.

On the one hand, the lack of active instruction adds some challenge to the game, also giving you the opportunity to properly explore the innards of the station – the areas are all nicely designed, and there’s a tense atmosphere to accompany you. But on the other, there’s some real frustration in trying to figure out what the game really wants from you – in one instance I spent a lot of time trying to work out how to access a computer, having done everything I thought I needed to, but in actual fact I needed to make S.A.M give a simple ‘response’ to the problem (holding R allows you to click on things to report to Emma) which would encourage our companion to unlock it for us. It was a simple solution, but without prompting it turned into a real arse-ache. And I wasn’t the only one either, as that particular problem was widely searched for on guides and forums, with some people even thinking their game had bugged out.

Part of this problem I think is to do with your restricted view. It’s difficult to properly look around and interact with things – being easy to become disorientated, and your camera taking an age to turn – so simple inconveniences that might be overcome more easily in a game such as a traditional point and click are more of a trial to get through.

Having said all that, there are portions of the game where you can leave your stationary views from cameras and inhabit a drone. Being brutally honest, I really didn’t like these sections. They do allow you more freedom when exploring, and it’s a cool perspective to take – especially when you go on jaunts outside of the station in the blackness of space – but the drones control poorly. You’re constantly bumping into things, which makes the screen blur, it’s hard to orientate yourself, and really it doesn’t offer anything new to the gameplay – at the times where I could choose what to use, be that the drone or cameras, I went for the cameras every time.

Reeling in the negativity a bit though, partnered with the atmosphere and narrative, the gameplay is compelling to progress though, and the gradually revealing mysterious is where Observation really shines. Observation doesn’t have an amazing twist, and some of you could probably figure out (or correctly guess) features of the plot pretty quickly, but the tone of the game is something I wasn’t entirely expecting. Sci-fi thriller, yes; ominous mystery, sure; terrifying conspiracy, not so much. I was really impressed by how the game presents its darker, spookier moments, and withholding any real answer right until the end instilled a desire to press on and cloaked this ‘event’ in a curious tension.

Everything from the sound design to the voice acting is delivered well, adding to that tense atmosphere and sense of loneliness and dread that pervades the station. I think the developers did a good job implementing the writing of the story with the presentation of the game, and even the clunkiness of the controls does something to gel with that.

If you’re expecting anything other than a linear narrative focused game though, then you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t usually a big deal for me – the more linear the better if it involves puzzling as far as I’m concerned – but there was definitely a sense from the descriptions of the game before release that there would be some freedom involved in the gameplay, even if this was just relating to you making decisions. Aside from some meaningless decisions to accept the voice recognition of Emma (you can deny her and it makes no difference – she uses you anyway) there really isn’t any decision making whatsoever. I remember it being said that the actions you make as S.A.M can lead to Emma distrusting you, and while that sort of happens, there’s no agency in this, it’s just a part of the story. There’s even one section at the end of the game, which I won’t spoil (people who have completed it will know what I’m talking about) which really sounds like it wants to give you a choice to make, but in the end you just have to get on with what the objective is telling you to do. Honestly, it’s a little disappointing.

It’s not the worst thing for the game though, and you can trust that the story it gives you is certainly a compelling one (we don’t always need multiple endings to make a worthwhile narrative). It’s just disappointing that ultimately there’s not much to Observation beyond that. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the gameplay, and especially not the controls, and in the end I probably would have got more enjoyment out of this watching it as a movie. It is excellently paced, just perhaps not much fun to get through. Perhaps if you have more patience than I do then you will get more out of the gameplay aspects of the game. Otherwise, while I have been critical I think I would still recommend this. If you’re into your sci-fi then it’s a given, but even if you just want a contained thriller, this should definitely hit the spot.