Plenty of video games blend sci-fi thrills with mystery and space travel. But few have done it quite like Observation. It’s a puzzle-focused game that, story-wise, feels something like a play on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Oh, and there’s one other important twist here: You play as the emotionless computer.
This tale unfolds in the year 2026, and you play as the System Administration Maintenance AI—not Hal 9000, but SAM—of a space station called Observation. When you blink and sputter slowly back into operation, you don’t really know what’s going on. You just know that everything is wrong: The station is limping along on minimal power, the human crew is nowhere to be seen, and your memory core has been wiped clean.
You quickly realize, however, that the only reason you’re even operating is because of one particular crew member, Dr. Emma Fisher. She’s jerry-rigged a way for you to function, at least on a basic level, and she’s helping with the situation at hand.
At first, your view of the space station world is limited to a single stationary camera. But as Emma brings more of your systems online, it’s obvious that there are many parts of the station with individual camera feeds. You’ll also have increasing access to drones, as well as other electronic devices and functions to potentially interact with, as the game progresses.
You also become aware of the fact that your space station is no longer orbiting Earth as it’s supposed to be. It’s currently some 740 million miles away and orbiting Saturn. So now, it’s time to piece your functions back together, solve the many electronic puzzles on the station and gain insight into what’s really going on—mysteries that stretch far beyond simple mechanical malfunctions.
This is one of those games that gradually pulls back the onion skin layers of the situation around you. And it offers the kind of puzzle-centric gameplay that non-gamers can easily get into.
Playing as Sam, you’ll encounter number puzzles, sequential conundrums, memory-based time-challenges and a wide variety of search-your-environment tasks as you reboot base functions, access locking mechanisms, tap into left-behind laptop messages, restore communications and reconfigure your own programming. All the while, you’ll also be helping Emma decipher the reasons for your mysterious circumstances.
If you’re thinking this task-filled setup sounds potentially tedious or boring, I can assure you it’s not. The game may be filled with puzzles, but it’s driven by sci-fi storytelling that’s immersive and memorable.
On top of that, your slowly deepening life-and-death relationship with Emma is realistically compelling, too. Even without emotions (or hands), you’ll find yourself flailing away in an attempt to beat a villain, to save the life of a person dear to you and to fulfill a multidimensional mission that you didn’t even know that you had.
As the story unfolds, we see blood-dappled evidence of violence and death and one heartless human choice. And SAM is ordered to be heartless as well. That said, this is not a game filled with bloodletting and gore.
Unfortunately, despite all of this space adventure’s positive and distinctive storytelling elements, there’s a big negative one in the gaming mix to be wary of, too. As the tensions rise, the humans in this tale have a tendency to spew some pretty foul language. (Even our beloved Emma.) F- and s-words fly, along with other profanities. In space, it’s been said, no one can hear you scream. But you will hear your crewmates swear in this game.
Frankly, that’s a disappointing inclusion, one that didn’t have to be a part of this otherwise engaging space odyssey. But it’s the kind of problem that nevertheless pushes this well-crafted title deeper into the abyss and out of bounds for many families.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.