Horror and suspense are at the heart of Observer’s Orwellian future.
Observer takes place in a sci-fi dystopia filled with cyborgs, classism and surveillance. Citizens are born into a caste system that rates them as individuals. The lower your caste, the lower your job and housing prospects. Society is driven by the competitive nature of technology, and many worship a government-like corporation called Chiron. Chiron employs people across the caste system and promises the ability to move up in society is just one job promotion away. The citizenry knows that’s not true, but they work grueling jobs anyway.
In developer Bloober Team’s Bladrunner-esque world, you play Dan Lazarski who works as an Observer. He’s jaded about the state of the society, and he often reminds the player of just how bad the world has become with frequent one-liners and cynicism delivered perfectly by actor Rutger Hauer. As an Observer, Dan has the technology to hack into people’s minds and relive parts of their memory. His work also involves risk: Reliving someone else’s memories also subjects Dan to their worst fears and can even wear away at his sanity.
The plot of Observer is deeply personal to Dan. After receiving a message from his estranged son, he traces the call, which leads him to a run down apartment complex in the slums. Here, Dan is trapped after the crime-ridden building goes under lockdown by Chiron for a possible disease outbreak. Using his detective skills as an Observer, Dan can put together crime scenes. These serve as simple but amusing environmental puzzles. Detective sequences play out like an evolution of Monolith’s detective mode in Condemned: Criminal Origins.
This is far from Bloober’s first foray into horror. In Layers of Fear, the developers put players in the shoes of an insane painter who tortured his family as he tried to perfect his craft. The game relied heavily on the notion that mentally ill people are inherently frightening, which was pretty insensitive. In Observer, horror is much more nuanced, and scares aren’t at the expense of the sick. In fact, Observer is rarely terrifying. There are moments where I jumped, but Bloober instead relies on the environment and macabre writing to maintain a constant sense of tension and dread. Layers of Fear’s horror worked, but what you’ll find in Observer is smarter and more compelling than anything Bloober Team has ever done. As a gamer, it’s thrilling to watch a developer create a world that’s better written and smarter than older creations.
Easily one of the more compelling things about Observer is how fleshed out the world is, and how often you can find little notes and details throughout the apartment complex that give hints at the lives its residents lead. You’ll find notes from an unlicensed doctor who’s manufacturing flesh and blood for the sick and learn about someone who drastically changed their appearance because they didn’t feel like themself in their own skin. These stories have a thick layer of cyberpunk grit, but they also feel deeply grounded in humans’ inherent desires to help others and address our own insecurities. You can learn to humanize the people Bloober Team wants you to fear, and that’s writing that deserves to be celebrated.
From a gameplay perspective, Observer is generally quite simple. Like most modern horror titles, there’s no fighting and a little bit of hiding when you’re being pursued. The progression loop is generally navigate the building, learn about a suspect or victim from his/her neighbors and then plug yourself into their mind after using detective vision filters to survey a crime scene. It’s a little repetitive, but not so much so that the game ever feels like a slog in its roughly seven hour run time.
Observer does have dialogue choices that create the illusion of branching discussions, but I found that most options still led to the same conversation endpoint. This way of having Dan navigate a discussion the way you think is best is definitely a great way to add good cop/bad cop dynamics to interrogations, but it’s a little less interesting when what you say means nothing to plot progression.
While the graphics are a stunning improvement over Layers of Fear (which was no slouch, visually speaking) and textures look great, the real immersion driver for me was Observer’s sound direction. From the basement to the courtyard to the individual apartment floors, each area of the game gave off different audio cues that escalate the tension. Pipes drip and groan, music pulses through muffled walls and the yells of trapped residents often fill the soundscape. Playing on your television or monitor speakers isn’t a bad experience, but a nice pair of headphones can really elevate the experience.
Observer is the best work in Bloober’s portfolio, and it manages to stand out in a genre of games that is often littered with cliches. There have already been a handful of decent horror games in 2017, but Observer stands above the rest by constantly hitting all the right notes with thoughtful writing. Bloober’s dystopian society that feels like it existed long before Dan Lazarski stumbled into it and will continue long after he leaves.
We turn to Rockstar for our open-world adventures, DICE and Blizzard for our action and now it seems we turn to Bloober for thought-provoking horror.
Observer was reviewed on PC courtesy of Evolve PR and Bloober Team.
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