Developer: Bloober Team
Release Date: 15/08/2017
if only you could see what I've seen
When I first dived into the seedy world of PC gaming one particular genre stood out in the mainstream. It wasn’t FPS’s with their balls to the wall action, it wasn’t RTS’s with their sweeping battlefields, nor was it the more reserved CRPG’s, no it was FMV adventure games specifically the ‘Interactive Movie’ kind. These things were frigging everywhere, pulling folks in with David Cage like promises of thrilling narratives that adapt to your every move. Shit, some even had big name actors. But as we all know, most of them were shit, hell, even the good ones have been far surpassed by more traditional adventure games of the time.
So why am I bringing this up?
You see in my opinion FMV games never really died, much like the Roman Empire they just got a change of clothes and started getting all preachy. I’m of course talking about the rise of “walking simulators” games where there isn’t really a fail state, instead you meander from point A to B picking up plot points along the way and occasionally making a binary choice. It’s a simple formula that relies on two things, having a good story and telling it well, and it appears that Bloober Team has pulled it off making Observer the first ‘Interactive Movie’ worth indulging in.
Observer has you playing as Daniel Lazarski, a detective who is able and authorised to hack peoples minds and dreams via a cybernetic implant called the ‘Dream eater’. Dan exists in a futuristic dystopian Poland tha-
I’ll cut the crap, it’s Blade Runner.
The first and most striking thing you’ll notice about observer is that it wears its influences on its sleeve, so much in fact that I had to keep a running tally of just how many different Cyberpunk films/books/games it paid homage to. But in spite of all this Observer quickly sets itself apart by restricting you to a microcosm of it’s larger world, by trapping you in a run-down tenement whilst you investigate a series of grisly murders.
This is the initial hook, but the draw is all the little stories it presents you along the way. Worldbuilding is obviously Bloober Team’s strong suit, where Layers of Fear had you draw most of the setting from the protagonist and his insane monologues, Observer’s world very much speaks for itself. It’s one of the best examples of “show don’t tell” I’ve seen since Riven, everything is self-explanatory and ‘makes sense’ within the context of the world this lets Observers various micro-plots bubble up without ever interrupting the core experience.
Let's move on to our protagonist, Dan is very obviously a product of his world but he and his story are very much independent of it, unlike games with lesser writing Dan is not a central pillar to holding up the world's fiction he’s just a tiny part, a side story if you will. Hats off to Rutger Hauer, obvious Blade Runner references aside it’s his performance that absolutely makes this game for me, he brings just the right amount of world-weariness and wit without ever losing his charm or devolving into tired clichés.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the rest of the cast. For the majority it’s the usual cavalcade of dull North American accents and where it was refreshing to have a protagonist who’s well beyond their prime it’s all the more crushing when the rest of the cast come off as bored college grads.
It’s not all bad, there are a few standout characters (such as Janus the janitor) but they are very few and far between and end up widening the divide between themselves and the rest of the cast who don’t even attempt decent Polish pronunciation.
Gameplay wise things are almost as simple as they get, you have 4 limbs, a quest log, and a curious device that self-medicates you when Dan begins to wig out, but more on that later. Observer defiantly isn’t an adventure game, puzzles are simply non-existent, and the majority of the dialogue takes place in scripted sequences. As I mentioned earlier Dan’s a detective and normally this would open the door to all kinds of logic puzzles and brain teasers but unfortunately futuristic investigation involves little more than examining everything in the room until your journal updates, thankfully Dan has a party trick. Courtesy of that auto-med gizmo Dan can invade peoples minds, he can perform the most terrifying of interrogations using the victim's hopes, dreams, and nightmares against themselves. The moral terrifying moral implications of this practice form a fair chunk of Observers backstory but are hardly raised in the game. After all, Dan is a world-weary train-wreck who is simply beyond caring. There's a small mechanic where over exerting Dan will create onscreen glitches that can only be cleared with some cyber-meds but it doesn't really add anything the gameplay. The mind-hacking sequences are the jewel in Observers crown, Bloober Team uses every trick at their disposal to make these segments as un-nerving as possible. Unfortunately the devs managed to kneecap these sequences so badly they bring the rest of the game down…
They added fucking stealth sections...
I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again unless you’re making a dedicated sneak-em-up DON’T ADD STEALTH SEGMENTS, don’t even fucking think of adding them, they’re the perfect way to kill any and all tension, intrigue and interest! That’s exactly what they do here, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to have the game slowly build to a terrifying neurotic crescendo, then at the last minute dump you in a cornfield and tell you to dodge the spotlights. There’s also a few hide and chase sequences with a cyborg-monster-thingie which is a little more fitting than the cornfield but still feel like a hack-meed addition.
So time to answer the big question.
Do I think Observer is worth your precious time and money? Yes oh god yes! Observer is the little game of 2017 that blew my socks off, it thrilled me, it intrigued me, and washed away all my bad memories of Dear Ester and A Machine for Pigs. I was unashamedly pulled in by it’s Blade Runneryness, but it was the hundreds of little details, the little stories that have made Observer one of my all-time favourite.