Observation review: a horror story through the eyes of AI

What does it mean to “see” the world through the “eyes” of an artificial intelligence? Most of pop culture depicts AI as the wrathful harbingers of humanity’s end; the omega to our alpha, the apotheosis of the post-human apocalypse. Its priorities tend to remain distinctly human, with little grasp of what an artificial mind might “think” or “feel.” Stories about AI tend to be about us, and so they fail to grasp what we ourselves do not, or cannot, understand.

Observation, both narratively and mechanically, takes great pains to upend, or at the very least interrogate, these loaded assumptions in order to attempt to grasp at what it would actually mean to interpret the world through the senses of an artificial intelligence and whether such a thing, for lack of its precedence in reality, is even possible for a human being to conceive; to presuppose instead that what makes artificial intelligence so inherently terrifying is not that its existence represents an end to the human race, but rather a bridge to a uncertain future of yet greater horrors beyond human annihilation.

The sophomore project from Glasgow, U.K.-based developer No Code, known for its 2017 debut Stories Untold and the team’s previous work on 2014’s Alien: Isolation, Observation is another sci-fi thriller that probes at the potential and perils that lie in the uncanny divide of human-computer interaction.

Observation game PS4 PC
No Code/Devolver Digital

Set in the year 2026, Observation’s story plays out on a titular low-orbit space station left stranded in the wake of some mysterious catastrophic systems failure. With no way to contact Earth or reliable means to ascertain the location of the Observation’s crew, medical officer Dr. Emma Fisher must repair the station’s systems, locate and secure any survivors, and re-establish contact with Earth to coordinate a rescue effort.

But you are not Dr. Emma Fisher. You are SAM: the Observation’s semi-omniscient operating system, rebooted following the blackout and tasked with assisting Dr. Fisher in the station’s repairs. Which is to say, you’re not aboard the space station. You are the space station.

Essentially a point-and-click adventure game, albeit played from the first-person perspective of a semi-autonomous computer program, Observation tasks me with combing through the Observation’s assorted modules and compartments in search of lost functionalities and abilities severed from the blackout. These actions principally consist of unlocking hatches, rerouting essential power between the station’s inactive systems, and repairing SAM’s damaged memory core by collecting assorted data files and notes pertaining to the Observation’s original mission scattered across the remnants of the station.

As SAM, I navigate the station — that is to say, myself — by hopping back and forth between its closed-circuit camera feeds via SAM’s internal surveillance systems à la Watch Dogs. This is visualized in-game as a layered series of graphic interfaces tailored to the perspective of SAM’s inhuman consciousness.

Later in the game’s opening hours, I also gain the ability to inhabit sphere drones that freely maneuver through the ship’s inner and outer corridors with 360-degree abandon. Pressing the left trigger on my controller, I enable SAM’s Response Mode, a sort of virtual heuristic overlay that enables me to interact with and comment on objects in the environment, respond to Fisher’s commands, and perform diagnostic scans of the station. Think the infrared scanner vision from The Terminator. Only this time, I’m the ghost inside the machine.

Observation’s derelict station is nothing short of a master class in real-life principles of space architecture, a multinational bricolage of labyrinthine compartments grafted together into a greebled funhouse reflection of the International Space Station. It evokes comparisons to the storied designs of prolific artists such as Ron Cobb and Raymond Loewy, with a UI as meticulous as it is multifarious, replete in scuzzy scan lines, visual snow, ASCII graphics, digital artifacting, and CRT mono font. Observation emulates the tactility and retro-futurist appeal of analog technology to a T, and firmly anchors the player POV within SAM’s at all times.

Observation game UI
No Code/Devolver Digital

Unfortunately, Observation’s UI is simultaneously the game’s greatest feat and most exhausting obstacle. Picture this scenario: You are SAM. About half an hour or so in, you have been reactivated by Emma. You’re (re)acquainting yourself with a basic understanding of the game’s core concepts (camera hopping, door pairing, etc.) when you’re alerted to a fire in one of the module compartments, and you and Emma have to put it out.

You follow her to the module adjacent to the one on fire. Emma commands you to open the door to the terminal on the count of three. After inadvertently failing on the first count, you frantically switch back and forth between SAM’s several internal feeds, attempting to deduce the correct sequence of events that will yield the solution to Emma’s request — all within the space of her second countdown. Again, you fail. Dr. Fisher loses her patience and yells at you, chastising you for your inability to perform her commands with machinelike precision before shouting that she will just do it herself.

The shape of this scenario, across several different iterations, repeated itself multiple times over the course of my hours with Observation.

The key to crafting an effective user interface, via video game or otherwise, is a careful balancing act of priorities both aesthetic and utilitarian. The location of the interface, how it functions, who is the user, and how is the interface meant to be seen are all questions and considerations that inform the shape and presentation of a plausible, functional user interface.

The design of Observation’s UI is successful in immersing me within SAM’s extrasensory field of perception as a semi-omniscient AI. But that success comes at the expense of the preeminent priority that a user interface, in principle, should strive for: comprehensibility. There were numerous moments throughout the game where my appreciation, and subsequent patience, for Observation’s painstakingly rendered tableaux of clumsy, cumbersome space interfaces wore thin to the brink of tearing completely.

The game’s difficulty curve resembles less a “curve” — incrementally acclimating the player to an intensifying series of problems — than it does an escalating corkscrew, turning mundane tasks such as opening a door or simply navigating the station’s interior into “puzzles” that can require strenuous, blunt-force deduction. While this approach is in and of itself perhaps effective in inducing an uncanny sense of recursive existential dread — with the player’s own frustration acting in place of what an AI itself might “feel” toward the out-of-body frustration of rediscovering itself — it doesn’t exactly make for an entirely rewarding play experience.

Observation game UI
No Code/Devolver Digital

Time and again, Observation’s interface transforms the simple into the esoteric to exasperating effect, forcing the player to recall several separate methods of problem-solving that coincide so infrequently, my mind has felt like a sieve overflowing with too much information.

I must reconstruct the schematics of the hatch partitions to manually override their locks via a snake-like matching puzzle; detach clamps in timed-ordered sequences to jettison stray module capsules from the Observation’s orbital hull; rhetorically beat my head against an experimental nuclear fusion reactor for close to half an hour to figure out not only what it’s doing, but how to reroute power from said reactor to the station’s auxiliary modules. Several other puzzles throughout the station could otherwise only be described through the use of pseudo-scientific proper nouns.

The sheer magnitude of visual and environmental information foisted on me created several bottleneck moments of exhausting difficulty. Multiple times, I was left hurriedly combing through several different camera systems and overlays in search of a solution that often aggravatingly proved hidden in plain sight. I spent 20 minutes scrutinizing the inside of an airlock capsule looking for a scannable QR code that SAM’s UI never thought to communicate to me, only to find said QR code by accident, then spent an another 20 minutes clumsily navigating one of SAM’s drone spheres around the exterior of the station in search of a faintly highlighted objective.

Observation game
No Code/Devolver Digital

Observation’s story is another strange beast, both surprising and deflating. Interacting with Emma as SAM, I can’t help but be reminded of the scene in Ex Machina where Nathan Bateman, billionaire tech genius and creator of the artificial intelligence Ava, asks the film’s protagonist Caleb whether consciousness, at any level, can exist without a social dimension. Are SAM’s interactions with Emma fueling its growth as an artificial intelligence? Would it be possible for an AI, let alone a human being, to be fully conscious without a connection to another consciousness to compare itself to? Furthermore, would the maturation of such an artificial intelligence necessitate it inhabiting an anthropomorphic form in order to achieve the equivalence of a human-level consciousness, or could SAM continue to grow as the operating system of the resolutely non-anthropomorphic spacecraft?

Observation game poster
No Code/Devolver Digital

These are profound and interesting questions. Questions that may, in essence, defy any attempt to find conclusive answers and, perhaps as a result of this, questions that Observation doesn’t seem particularly interested in exploring. Or at the very least, not as the focus of the game’s plot. Rather than echo the transhumanist ruminations of 2001: A Space Odyssey or Ex Machina, it veers toward the eldritch dread of Prometheus and Event Horizon with shades of James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence.

The most visible mystery at the heart of Observation does not explicitly deal with SAM’s implied ascension toward self-directed autonomy and consciousness, but concerns a preternatural “presence” that seizes control over SAM’s field of view during crucial moments in the plot. It is heralded by an audible wave of screeching static, hexagonal glyphs, unintelligible coordinates, and a simple, ominous command for SAM to accomplish one objective above all else: “BRING HER.”

Is this … entity somehow responsible for animating SAM into self-awareness? Are these visions “real,” or the delusion of a nascent inhuman consciousness? Is Dr. Fisher this so-called “HER,” and if so, where does this presence want SAM to take her? And why? These questions take precedence above all others in Observation’s plot, relegating any speculation concerning the particularities of SAM’s personal evolution to the player’s own interpretation.

This was, again, frustrating because it put the onus on me, the player, to infer a character arc in SAM’s development that frankly does not seem to exist. At one point toward the latter half of the game’s third act, SAM proclaims, “I am different now,” only for me to then essentially go on to perform the same series of principal actions I had been performing for the past five or so hours.

Observation screenshot
No Code/Devolver Digital

Of all the words I come back to in describing my experience with Observation, the most persistent is “frustrating.” It’s an ambitious game, with an inspired premise and an equally inspired approach to framing the player’s perspective within that of an entity both familiar and foreign. But this same dogged commitment to replicating the clumsy tactility of analog interfaces and artificial reasoning creates an intractable wedge between the game’s story and its execution. Compared to Observation’s writing and presentation, the actual moment-to-moment experience of traversing the station’s knotted corridors and teasing out its mysteries feels laborious and unnecessarily convoluted. Frustration in and of itself is not indicative of a shortcoming in a game’s design. At best, it can accentuate a game’s core concepts and emphasize moments of dramatic heft and consequence. Unfortunately, this is not the case for Observation.

Observation is a conceptually ambitious, albeit mechanically flawed, effort — an experience that, while impressive in some respects, too often seems like it can’t stop getting in its own way by dint of its own design. It’s worthwhile experience, warts and all, though one whose peculiarities will inevitably confine it to the niche audience of players willing to look past its shortcomings.

Observation is being released May 21 on PlayStation 4 and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using final “retail” PC download codes provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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