In case it was not already apparent, I am a geek. I play video games, a lot of video games. I read fantasy books by the truckload, and I love all things sci-fi. So, the idea of a 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Alien inspired video game where I get to play as the A.I. was an easy sell. Sadly, due to a number of serious design issues, the HAL in this game is way less than 9000.
Observation has a fascinating idea at its core. You play as S.A.M. the A.I. for a space station that has seen much better days. Some really serious shit has gone down. The crew is missing, and the station itself is in a very sorry state of affairs. What has happened is as yet unknown, and only a solitary crew member has seemed to have survived whatever catastrophe has devastated the station and its crew. That sole survivor; Emma Fisher will direct you to re-establish core systems, repair damage, and maybe give some insight into what has transpired.
Emma exists in the game as your map, objective giver, and a primary narrative driver, and for the most part, she works in-world extremely well. The voice acting is exceptional, and the stark contrast between the mechanical noises and periods of silence are beautifully offset by Emma's interactions and instructions throughout the game. I cannot fault the game's atmosphere as it is executed to perfection, both in terms of its stellar visuals and evocative soundscape, but everything else is rife with issues, and sadly Emma is one of those despite the amazing performance behind her voice.
Emma is the motivator in the game. She sets the tasks, and you control S.A.M. in his attempts to resolve them. The issue is that for a game that is extremely linear, you're given very little instruction or even in-game indication of the specifics of what you need to do. This isn't a case of the game being difficult, the issue here is that for whatever reason the design of the game relies on being obtuse in an effort to slow the progression to a crawl. Emma is not only of little help, at times the urgency of her requests are directly in opposition to the pace the rest of the game insists you adhere to. This is not only frustrating but highlights just how shallow the entire game is by attempting to push out the play time by forcing you to drift through the station's cramped corridors slowly.
At its core Observation is a puzzle game and one that evolves throughout its duration. The problem is that the puzzles themselves are mostly a lot of busy work hampered by an awkward and generally unfriendly control scheme. Add in that many of the puzzles rely on you failing and using trial and error to complete takes away from the joys this type of game generally relies on. Very few of the puzzles could be solved by careful examination or intelligent lateral thinking, making solving them an exercise in needless busywork as you tick off a bunch of obfuscated objectives that just take time to complete, rather than any actual skill. I rarely felt any satisfaction when I eventually solved a puzzle or bypassed a roadblock.
Each time I encountered a puzzle, it felt like a method to slow my progression rather than a core game element the design team employed to entertain the player. The design and implementation of S.A.M. further exacerbates this. It feels artificially artificial solely for gameplay's sake, and the limitations set by the game and how S.A.M. can interact with the world detracts from the experience at every turn. All the while reducing the gameplay to a derivative mix of Five Nights at Freddy's and a paint by numbers hidden object game, albeit clothed within a gorgeous hard sci-fi spacesuit.
The one saving grace could have been the story, which does start of very strong. The mystery of what has befallen the station and crew provides strong motivation very early on, but much like every other aspect of the game, it suffers from never stamping its own identity on proceedings. Like the derivative and shallow puzzles, the story itself repeats these sins throughout. It is one thing to wear your inspirations proudly, and it is another to do nothing new or interesting with them. While there are some genuinely surprising and more than a few terrifying moments throughout, the story suffers from a level of predictability that constantly undermines all the good work that the writing team and the performers had delivered.
In the end, I only really ask a game to do one thing, and that is to entertain me. Sadly, in this case, when I asked Observation to do that, the reply I got was – I'm sorry, Dave I'm afraid I can't do that. And my name isn't even Dave.