“I am here.”
You’ll hear that line often over the course of Observation, a puzzle-adventure game that came out last year for PC and PlayStation 4 and earlier this summer for Xbox One. (It’s also included in the Xbox Game Pass library.) If you’re looking for a short, satisfying adventure to help you weather the August doldrums—between rounds of Fall Guys, of course—you’d be hard-pressed to find a sweeter option than Observation.
At its core, Observation is a series of progressively confounding environmental puzzles set in an international space station, also named Observation. Since you play as a computer program—an artificial intelligence unit known as the Systems Administration & Maintenance, or SAM—your “movements” are limited by the station’s infrastructure. For the most part, that means hopping between the station’s various security cameras, switching to others whenever you need to shift your view. From there, you can beam into any technology you can see: laptops, door controls, fusion reactors, that sort of thing. (Partway through, you’ll be able to commandeer something called a Connection Sphere, an orb-shaped object that allows you to traverse the station’s pods with some autonomy.) It all works much like the camera-leaping mechanic from the Watch Dogs series, if you’re familiar with that particular flavor of Ubisoft Open-World Action Game®.
As you move through the various pods of Observation (the space station), Observation (the game) becomes more complex. The puzzles don’t follow a formula, so each module forces you to discern a unique solution. You don’t learn an ever-expanding set of rules, as you would in a game like The Witness or The Talos Principle. Instead, you analyze and, sorry, observe your surroundings for anything that looks like it could unlock a path forward. It’s rare that you’ll use the same solution—or even the same solution method—more than once.
It’s all very mind-bending and mystifying, but Observation shines most with its sinister sci-fi narrative. The first big twist (of many) is where things get really interesting. (Don’t worry, Observation also throws at least half a dozen curveballs at you before it wraps, so you’ll have plenty of surprises.)
Set in 2026, Observation (the game) starts out with Observation (the space station, bear with me) going dark in low Earth orbit. An astronaut on board, Dr. Emma Fisher, manages to restore minimal functions to both the station and SAM. The rest of the crew are radio silent. It’s unclear why the station powered down, but SAM is quickly confronted with a series of strange glyphs, a set of coordinates, and a directive: “Bring her.” The station, and SAM with it, powers down again. When Emma reboots SAM, it’s revealed that Observation has somehow ended up in Saturn’s orbit—apparently, at SAM’s behest. It’s unclear why or who or what urged SAM to do so.
The result is a narrative that, like so many science-fiction tales, is all about figuring out what the hell is going on. But it’s also rooted in stuff that isn’t fiction whatsoever. For instance, core to Observation (the game) is Saturn’s hexagon, a vortex first discovered in 1981, by the Voyager mission, and more recently surveyed by NASA’s Cassini mission, which entered the planet’s orbit in 2004. To date, experts are unsure what forces, exactly, cause Saturn’s hexagon. We know it’s only on the planet’s north pole. We know that, over the years, it’s inexplicably changed color. And we know that it’s larger than Earth. Beyond that, the anomaly is an enigma.
Observation tries to solve that enigma with a proposition that, assuredly, is not the real-world answer. But every plot point along the way is informed by real-world science, to the point where such an otherworldly outcome feels legitimately earned. Yes, sci-fi fans will be happy to hear that Observation is “hard” science fiction, or science fiction that’s informed by known laws of physics, astronomy, technology, and other relevant fields of study.
Best of all, Observation is not a meandering game; you can tear through it in seven or eight hours, less if you Google for solutions. Hear, hear, for games that respect our time. Observation is well worth yours. In fact, even though it’s a refrain of sorts for SAM, and is spoken by other characters, that recurrent line might as well be uttered by Observation itself, reminding you, though you may have missed it before, “I am here.” I’m glad I finally noticed.