“A really simple way to break it down,” says No Code co-founder Jon McKellan, “is that Observation is kind of 2001: A Space Odyssey – but you’re HAL.”
It’s a beautiful elevator pitch for the new game from (and longtime passion project for) the studio behind Stories Untold, but the real joy of Observation comes from just how deeply it’s aiming to communicate what it is to play as that disembodied intelligence. McKellan has another statement to sum that up: “You’re not on a space station, you are the space station”.
Set on the LOSS (that’s Low Orbit Space Station), Observation opens as station AI, Systems Administration and Maintenance (SAM for short) reboots. Something has happened, but it’s unclear what that might be. Lights strobe, alarms sound, and the only contactable crew member is station doctor Emma Fisher – she’s stuck in an airlock. It seems fitting that, as part of the rich lineage of talking space computers, your first task should be to open a door on command.
Except, have you ever thought what it is a computer has to do to open a specific door? In SAM’s case, that involves flicking your multifarious gaze to a camera that can see the door in question, interfacing with its control panel, adding that control toggle to your operating system menu and, finally, opening the door.
You, as SAM, are learning what it is to operate as a station AI.
From Emma’s perspective, she asked for a door to be opened, and then it did. From the player’s perspective, they just solved the first of Observation’s multifaceted puzzles, combining classic point ‘n’ click observation, gorgeously-drawn submarine-chic user interfaces (it’s not a surprise to find out that McKellan was previously responsible for Alien: Isolation’s amazing retro-futurist computer terminals), and a dose of lateral thinking.
You, as SAM, are learning what it is to operate as a station AI. In a game sense, that means that Observation’s core puzzling isn’t found in complex solutions to provided problems, but in working out what the puzzle might be in the first place. Early on, that’s in finding out how to check which of your your memory cores are intact (by navigating your internal OS and literally swiping through them using an analogue stick), informing Emma which elements of the station are and aren’t functioning (rather than dialogue options, holding L2 highlights parts of the environment or menus that SAM can report on), or making the station’s external cameras your eyes, gazing around for damage and possible clues as to what’s happened to render the rest of the crew, and Houston mission control, so silent.
No Code repeatedly calls the game a thriller, but there’s out-and-out horror here too, even if it feels a tad blanker than in Stories Untold, more about dread than shock. That comes somewhat from its setting – familiar to anyone who’s taken even a cursory look at what space exploration means today. Observation is contemporary sci-fi, taking place in 2026. “Space station” in this case doesn’t mean the neo-’60s living room vibe of 2001, or even Moon’s functional, livable industrial installation. SAM’s body is painstakingly modeled on the International Space Station (to prove that, McKellan directs me to a stack of Haynes Manual-like tomes filled with blueprints of real-life spacecraft), making it a zero-G warren of cramped modules, cobbled together from pieces blasted up by space agencies across the world. It’s plausibly cluttered, head-spinning to navigate (there’s no traditional up or down to its design) and far from homely.
A rogue signal that manifests itself as VHS interference, all broken scanlines and blocky-fonted text, simply reads “BRING HER”.
But the real-life ISS – at least to the public’s knowledge – hasn’t had any reports of unexplained noises loud enough to cause astronauts to black out, or crew members seemingly vanishing. Crucially, SAM doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this – at least not directly. Your digital displays are occasionally disrupted by a rogue signal that manifests itself as VHS interference, all broken scanlines and blocky-fonted text that simply reads “BRING HER”. SAM might remind us of HAL (particularly his voice, performed beautifully and chillingly by Anthony Howell, who played Alien: Isolation’s android Samuels), but he’s definitely trying to help his crew.
That help will seemingly come in many forms. My hands-on with the game was firmly rooted in the introduction, meaning much of what I played amounted to a tutorial in the game’s basic systems, but McKellan gave me a glimpse of what comes later. Initially, your SAM’s-eye-view is rooted in the station’s CCTV. As you gain access to different modules, you also gain access to their cameras, your gaze becoming more and more omnipresent, but always fundamentally fixed in place.
Later, you can transfer that gaze into floating, self-propelled sphere drones (based on real technology used on the ISS), which can be piloted around the twisting innards of the station, and allow you to access personal equipment, like crew laptops, and explore the static cameras’ blind spots. On top of all this, you can take a peek within the workings of the ship’s systems themselves, operating the SamOS, which allows you take control of the station as a whole. It’s clear that puzzles will end up intertwining all three views, SAM essentially everywhere and nowhere simultaneously.
Even subtitles, when enabled, appear word-by-word, as if SAM’s parsing each syllable as it’s said.
Observation is a meaningful name. Not only does it lend to the creeping voyeurism of watching events unfold for Emma, but makes clear that you won’t be able to touch or alter those events directly. The game’s puzzles are grounded in reality and science – you’re not fighting off aliens, you’re accounting for orbital decay, fixing system failures, or simply pointing out evidence you find.
The dedication to keeping you immersed in the idea of being an AI is already staggering. We begin the game by discovering that whatever’s happened to the station has also wiped out several of SAM’s core features, from tracking the crew to his own stored memory – and we see empty, corrupted menus for those features inside the SAM OS. It’s both a subtler solution to the idea of a quest list for the player, and a neat indication that this isn’t just a pause menu – it’s a working computer system you’re inside and a part of. Even subtitles, when enabled, appear word-by-word, as if SAM’s parsing each syllable as it’s said. Speak to Siri on an iPhone and you’ll see the same thing.
Of course, you’re not an AI, you’re a human, with human willfulness, human curiosity, and a very human tendency to want to mess things up for fun. Even this is accounted for – Emma will respond to you making mistakes, or acting strangely. In a second runthrough of the demo, I screwed up literally everything I could on purpose, getting a range of responses: confusion, anger, suspicion. SAM’s clearly been reliable in the past – the player’s become the ghost in the machine, and Emma’s worried about that change in personality.
The player’s become the ghost in the machine, and Emma’s worried about that change in personality.
I thought that might simply be a flavourful way to acknowledge mistakes – No Code wants us to know that this is a game without Game Over states, or hugely divergent story paths – but there are consequences to some failures. In one section, SAM needs to safely jettison a station module that’s become unsafely detached within a time limit. Do it correctly, and it floats gently away; fail to complete the task and it violently sheers off from the station, tumbling into space. Later, I’m told, there will be an opportunity to access what’s in that module – but only if I did things right.
But curiosity will be rewarded, too. Some puzzles and exploration will be entirely optional, but with meaningful rewards. Scattered notes might contain lore or audio logs, but others can include new mechanics, like the instructions for manually overriding doors, ignoring the need to interface with them through the OS. No Code’s seemingly created an open world in miniature, one you’ll get to know intimately as you zip through its wiring.
The size of that space has let the 10-strong studio put huge effort into its looks, too. Much of the team has a background in AAA development, and they’re attempting to replicate what you’d expect from one of their past games, from facial animations (a major step up from the practically human-less Stories Untold) to the sheer detail of the station itself – No Code says the game pushes the limits of the PS4 for simply how much stuff is floating around.
There’s seemingly a whole side to the game I haven’t seen. McKellan mentions that much of the storytelling will be done by characters looking back on the events you’re witnessing – it sounds almost as though you’re playing flashbacks between documentary-style talking heads. Similarly, my demo ends with a twist – I won’t give that away for fear of spoilers, suffice it to say that the LOSS is not where it should be – leaving me feeling a little less sure that SAM isn’t blameless in this situation. He just might not have the uncorrupted storage space to know that yet.
That, in essence, is what’s left me so excited for Observation. By placing the player in the circuitry of such an unfamiliar kind of character, performing unfamiliar tasks from an unfamiliar perspective, the game feels completely unpredictable. “2001 but you’re HAL” is a perfect way to explain Observation’s set-up, but I have a feeling the actual events of the game will be far less straightforward.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK News Editor, and there’s a terrible part of him that wants SAM to have a little mute robot buddy he can tut at. Follow him on Twitter.