Open The Pod Bay Doors, SAM: Observation Review

Even in the age of Alexa, Siri, and Googles that you say “hey” to, one of the most chilling portrayals of artificial intelligence remains HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL’s story beautifully illustrates what makes us human (for all his intelligence, HAL can not muster the compassion or creativity humans innately possess), so when I learned that you play as a HAL-like entity in the new game Observation, I was intrigued.

However, even though the 2001 influences are there, this game is probably not destined to become a classic alongside the film.

You play as SAM — short for System Administration Maintenance — the computer aboard a multi-national space station orbiting earth. You are woken by Dr. Emma Fisher who is trying to reestablish contact with Earth after an event damaged the station and sent it spinning. You work with Emma to repair different parts of the station and are sometimes interrupted by eerie noises, the text “Bring Her” and/or a floating hexagon that forces you to play a Simon-like memory minigame. Emma looks out the window to see that you two are no longer above earth, but just outside of Saturn. Oops! SAM takes credit for the error but can’t remember how it happened.

As Emma and SAM work together to reconnect different parts of the station, they also slowly piece together the mystery of what happened and why they’re here. Things get weird towards the end, but weird in a way that should be enjoyable to those who enjoy sci-fi twists.

The daemon’s in the details

Although playing as SAM was initially the main thing that intrigued me, the way Observation portrays the internal functioning of a computer is the game’s weakest point.

As SAM — a computer — you are naturally limited by the hardware aboard the ship. Your eyes are cameras mounted in different points of the station; your ears seem to be microphones integrated into the astronauts’ suits; your brain is a central memory system that can collect and combine data inputs. Initially, this makes for an interestingly constrained system. Pop up menus that were little more than light text on a black background made me feel curiously claustrophobic; it was unsettling to be a mind without a body. But as the game progresses, different tools free you from this limited perspective, and a floating sphere that you occasionally control (think Guilty Spark from Halo) completely destroys any constraint you may have felt earlier.

These cameras are also SAM’s main method of interfacing with the rest of the computer components on the ship. Connecting to other devices like laptops or environmental sensors requires zooming in on the item and entering a randomly generated button command. This technique motivates some interesting visual framing of the world, but every time I slowly zoomed in on a laptop, I couldn’t help but think this not how a computer would do this. A computer would scan lists of I/O ports, check for errors, and run existing programs, just like the few text-based prompts from the beginning. Actually going into the room and visually scanning for what you need is an extremely human way of troubleshooting.

Additionally, this scan-and-connect method was also frustrating because the game doesn’t employ a consistent language that assists in identifying gameplay elements. It’s impossible to tell from a distance which documents on the wall are scannable, which are not scannable but contain information you need, and which are simply set decoration. Most laptops you can interact with display a certain screen, but some others display a different screen and yet can still be accessed. Sometimes using your reply mode (a special view that allows you to comment on things) highlighted necessary elements, but sometimes it didn’t. I’d be curious if something like placing QR codes beside items you could interact with or expanding your reply mode ability would make the game feel more intuitive. (And, as a side effect, more computery.)

Even though I was playing as a powerful AI, I never felt knowledgeable about the ship. I kept getting lost in similar looking corridors and overlooking components that I needed to connect to. I was often unsure of what I was supposed to do next (even after consulting the objectives screen.) In 2001, HAL’s omnipresence creates a marvelous dramatic tension. Even after sneaking away to an escape pod, the astronauts cannot avoid HAL’s haunting perception. But in Observation, I only ever felt as in control as the cameras’ servos allowed me to be.

Which makes sense from a narrative perspective, I suppose. You and Emma are on the same team, and you’re both working to figure out what happened. But I never felt like I complimented her human knowledge with my prodigious computational abilities. Most of the time I just felt like a bumbling personal assistant.

Yes, but is it a horror game?

This game has plenty of eerie noises and flashing lights that jolt your senses. But I’m not into jump scares, so I approached Observation like the guy who walks through a haunted house nervously laughing and pointing at every actor saying, “I saw you before you moved! You didn’t fool me!” Not many things jump out at you, but the game does foster a consistent aura of foreboding. So if you’re into that, have at it.

The Bottom Line

Observation takes an interesting elevator pitch — it’s 2001, but you play HAL! — and doesn’t quite deliver on its potential. Yes, you do play as a computer in a space station, but you don’t really ever feel like that computer. You never really get inside the machine that’s running the station and experience what it might be like to have computational abilities that are far superior to the puny humans giving you orders. Instead, you just perform some menial tasks for your astronaut friend and putter around in a space-age hamster ball. The perspective of the on-board computer provides an interesting vantage point for a solid sci-fi/horror story, but frustrating interactive elements sometimes make getting through that story feel like a slog.

If the premise or genre interests you, I’d wait to see if it will become a free PS Plus game during a future month.



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Chris On Videogames

Chris On Videogames

Videogame criticism that’s short, sharp, and insightful. New reviews every other Friday.