Observation: Systems and Play

Well, I couldn’t take screenshots again, because Epic doesn’t have that functionality, because it’s awful. But alright – I played Observation, and it’s amazing. One of the best games I’ve ever played. It’s from the guys who made Stories Untold, which I’ve written about before – nice to see them making good – and it’s phenomenal. You play a computer on a space station while stuff is Happening. I won’t talk about the plot – it has some pretty interesting narrative stuff that it does, but given that it’s actually relatively recent, I’ll leave that side alone. It’s not so much concern about spoilers, it’s more – like, the people who do reviews have already done those, and the people who do thinky pieces about new releases have done their thing too. But it’s not quite in the three-to-five year bracket that I keep for plot dissections. So instead, we’ll talk about how Observation uses systems as a way to engage with the world.

Because you play as a computer, you interact with the world in very mechanical ways. There’s a power outage or something just as you start the game, meaning that you’ve been disconnected from all the ship’s different systems. As you move around the station, flicking through different cameras, you reconnect with different parts and start to build up this repertoire of different functions. And – just a moment on the camera movement, actually.

One of the gimmicks in this game is that there are a bunch of cameras mounted around the walls of the station. You might get three different cameras in one room – you can see an example from 16:18 in the video above, if you’re interested. The player connects with a vent to get rid of some smoke from a fire, and then moves between the cameras to show different perspectives on the room. It’s a really nice carry-over from the 90s – from games like the original Resident Evil, say, where as you moved around a room you’d get a static camera moving between different positions, instead of the more familiar mobile camera that sits over your shoulder. There are very specific things you can do with this sort of setup – and Observation digs right into them. The whole thing about static camera angles, right, is that you know exactly what players are going to be seeing. It becomes a lot easier to dress a room, because you know the set perspectives that it’ll be seen from. And you can do things like create surprise, create particular reveals. Say you’re out looking for someone, and you’re flicking between your cameras. You check camera one, there’s nothing, camera two, still nothing, and then camera three – oh shit, now you can see behind that locker, and there’s a body in there! You’re able to editorialise a bit more in terms of how players view the space.

Anyway, that’s a side note. It’s nice to see that sort of 90s mechanic pulled into a 2019 game. Very retro vibe – fits with Stories Unknown, actually, they had that sort of aesthetic going there too. So you bounce between your different cameras, and pick up all these different systems. You can collect documents and emails and so on too, piece together something of the crew’s recent history. And then you’ll get tasks from the humans aboard the station. This again is a really tidy way to steer the player in certain directions without the game feeling like it’s railroading you. Within the context of the narrative, you are playing a support role. You’re the station AI, and your job is to do whatever the humans tell you. And it’s not always clear how you’re supposed to do it. Sometimes you have to read an instruction manual that tells you how something operates. Sometimes you have to read microfiche and mentally trace through different circuits. And every time you connect to a new piece of technology around the station, you have to confirm the link by typing in three randomly generated numbers. It’s not a time-sensitive exercise, that one, you just get the buttons and you have to push them to confirm the link.

Image from Stories Untold

The basic aesthetic of this style is to point out that different systems and programs and technologies all operate slightly differently. Again, that’s an aesthetic that’s contiguous with Stories Untold, which is an anthology of games that requires you to move between different computers and machines and so on. Even in the screenshot above, you can see that Stories Untold has you looking at multiple in-universe screens, drawing your attention to the screen as medium rather than just delivering the information in a more direct way. In an age where everything is being reduced to this singular, digital, global stream of data, the developers behind Stories Untold and Observation are interested in the material nature of technology. They’re less interested in the abstract cloud-based digital singularity – they want to know how it fucking feels on your fingers. They want to know how heavy a cassette is. They want to know about the click that a dial makes when you turn it from one position to another. They’re interested in the feel and texture and materials that go into our technologies. That’s a big part of why these systems in Observation all control differently – the different interfaces are part of exploring the material of these technologies.

I guess what stands out here is how different this multi-interface setup is to your normal video game. Typically you have a set gameplay loop, with one core set of repeated actions. In Call of Duty, it’s shooty bang bang with cover. You run, you crouch, you shoot. And over time you get better at it. Observation isn’t really interested in that cycle. It’s not about your skill at one particular system. It’s about a world of systems. Here’s the thing, right – even the biggest, most complex games out there can often feel like pale imitations of reality. There are always things that they’re missing. Which is not to say that they’re bad or somehow wrong-footed, it just means that when we play, we’re often working within the limits of the system that we’re given. There’s a certain closed-off-ness that we just have to accept. In Observation, we’re presented with a world of systems. If you want to work the vents, there’s a system for that, and if you want to open a door, there’s another system for that. Rather than one, self-contained system that makes up the entirety of your relationship with a fictional world, Observation presents you with a dozen, two dozen systems, with the promise that more exist just outside the scope of this particular story. It’s all just hints and implications, but it works. It makes the world of Observation seem broad and complex, in a way that the closed-ness of other games just doesn’t do.

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