No matter the format, be it film, television, books, or videogames – No Code’s Observation is a brilliant slice of narrative sci-fi. Perhaps, one of the best we’ll see this year. Inspired by the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the central concept revolves around putting you in direct control over a space station’s advanced AI. A setup that then translates directly to the title, as you take on the role of a seemingly impartial and not-quite sentient observer. It’s a calculated and immersive setting to tell an engrossing story dealing with isolation, survival, and mystery.
With often exceptional writing and pacing, Observation excels due to the presentation built around this setting; as you take direct control over various space station cameras, moving around modules and interacting with systems. This then evolves to taking direct control of a spherical robot where at times you can leave the confines of the game’s International Space Station setting to move about its exterior. With video artefacts, vertical hold effects, analog and digital noise, varying FOV levels, and more, each visual flourish adds to the feeling of being there at a real space station floating in orbit – as an AI no less.
Blending low-fi aesthetics with highly detailed modules that feature all the sort of detail you’d expect to find in a cramped and claustrophobic space station created by multi-national space organisations it all, again, begins to feel very real. And raw. The simple act of using your own AI systems to view and move around is wonderfully realised, and quickly begins to take on the aura of an experience that feels like something more than just a game. A statement that although might be a disservice to the advances we’ve seen in recent years when it comes to interactive story-driven titles, solidifies Observation as a great work of sci-fi fiction.
"With video artefacts, vertical hold effects, analog and digital noise, varying FOV levels, and more, each visual flourish adds to the feeling of being there..."
Observation sells the feeling of awe, discovery, and pure existential isolation that comes from being in space.
Aptly described as a sci-fi thriller, as the onboard artificial intelligence S.A.M. Observation opens with Dr. Emma Fisher rebooting the space station’s systems, and you, to try and figure out just what happened to her crew and its mission. There’s a fire to put out, crew members to find, and your own data to recover. For most of the experience you work alongside Emma, following commands and assisting her whilst at the same time dealing with an underlying mystery that has all the existential and extra-terrestrial hallmarks of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"The simple act of using your own AI systems to view and move around is wonderfully realised, and quickly begins to take on the aura of an experience that feels like something more than just a game."
Puzzles are present throughout, and in a brilliant turn understanding the puzzle in and of itself becomes the solution. Thematically it brings you closer to both S.A.M. and Emma, as figuring out how to use an exterior clamp system or obtain coordinates from a long-range array ends up servicing the story being told and the current objective first and foremost. In the early parts of the game, putting out a fire means figuring out how to properly make use of ventilation and exhaust systems. Even though you’re an AI, this hands-on systems approach with detailed readouts and different interfaces that comes from combining U.S., Russian, and Chinese modules, adds to the tension. Which ramps up slowly and steadily throughout.
Going into greater detail about the story and events would rob Observation of a lot of its power. And the expected ambiguity that comes from this brand of sci-fi. In the end, Observation resonates primarily because of how it uses its interactivity and presentation. Playing a role and being there as a part of it all even elevates even some of the weaker narrative moments. From the visual effects to the detailed space station to the ambient music and even the animation of Emma herself, Observation is a triumph in both design and calculated execution.