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Feature Article

Observation's Sinister AI Threat Sets Up A Gripping Story

Artificial Isolation

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Dr. Emma Fisher finds herself aboard the space station Observation. Something catastrophic has occurred, but she's not sure what or how. All she has to guide her is the station's artificial intelligence, SAM, but it's unclear whether it has her best interests in mind.

2001: A Space Odyssey is a clear influence for Observation, and developer No Code--which previously made 2017's Stories Untold--doesn't shy away from that. Observation oozes a retro aesthetic, tapping into the dusty nostalgia in those of us who grew up with cathode-ray tube monitors and fuzzy VHS tapes. It comes as no surprise then that the game's Creative Director previously worked on Alien Isolation. The same attention to detail that brought the Sevastopol to life is present aboard the Observation.

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In an interesting twist, however, you play through the lens of SAM--rather than the surviving Dr. Fisher--and you must reboot your systems and get the station back online to figure out exactly what has happened. The UI is cleverly designed to not feel human, yet navigating the system menus in the environment with a PS4 controller feels satisfyingly deliberate and heavy, as if you are physically connected to the circuit boards within SAM. This makes solving puzzles all the more rewarding, as your powers of deduction are put to the test against a foreign yet intuitive computer interface. Running memory diagnostics or calibrating the station's systems feel less like computer processes and more like manual labor--in a good way.

SAM is reminiscent of HAL 9000, 2001's ominous sentient computer that--spoiler alert for a film from 1968--turns against its own crew. Knowing this kept me in a skeptical mood the entire time I was playing Observation, and it made me increasingly cautious as I slowly unraveled the cosmic conundrum at hand. It's an unsettling feeling, heightened by the loneliness of space, and fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey will find themselves with a prejudice against SAM that's impossible to ignore.

As Dr. Fisher digs, the mysteries deepen and, through it all, the need to know what role SAM may or may not have played compelled me to continue. As I began to decipher events and figure out how it all unfolded, however, things got... weird. But I won't go into detail on that. Observation will be a relatively short game, perhaps a handful of hours long, so it's best you go in blind and uncover this for yourselves.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this game might be the perfect fit for VR, but it makes a lot of sense that it doesn't, as this could make it feel too ‘human'--the charm of this game is in being immersed in the role of SAM and having the disconnect of being separated from the world you're supposed to exist in. While the PC version does support keyboard and mouse, this game was designed with controllers in mind and there's something satisfying about using an analogue stick to slowly drag a cursor across a user interface that looks like it was designed in the 70s.

Will Dr. Fisher make it back to Earth, or does SAM have other ideas? I'm certainly excited to see how things unfold, and the retro aesthetic is a treat both to look at and interact with. Sci-fi fans can look forward to playing Observation on PS4 and PC in Spring 2019.

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