‘Observation’ Is the Closest Most of Us Will Ever Come to Working on a Space Station

Welcome to Game Pass Gems. Join us on the journey through the underbelly of Xbox Game Pass. Maybe we’ll find your next favourite game. This edition will focus on Observation.

This article contains minor spoilers. Continue at your own peril.

Dr. Emma Fisher isn’t having the best day. Her space station is falling apart, her crewmates are missing, presumed dead. Alarm bells are ringing, there’s a fire in the storage module, and to top it all off, the station AI doesn’t seem to have any idea what it’s doing.

Observation is effectively a playable Gravity, from the perspective of Mother from Alien, by way of Arrival and Event Horizon. As the AI S.A.M. (Station Administration and Maintenance) you are tasked with carrying out the bidding of the good doctor Fisher by navigating through the space station Observation’s myriad of cameras and computer systems. This could be as simple as zooming in on a power switch to turn it on, or as complicated as inputting thrust vectors to enter a stable orbit. Playing out as a very well polished narrative puzzle game, Observation delivers an extremely unique experience. That of being a spaceship’s entire effective crew, desperately trying to plug the leaks that keep springing up. Observation by name, Observation by nature. Observe the beautifully rendered and realistic environments. Observe the intense sci-fi soundscape. Observe the mysterious broadcasts that intrude on your computer readout. Observe the ship’s computer spend fifteen minutes trying to turn the ventilation system back on.

Observation’s hook is also its most significant narrative flaw. The ship’s computer should ostensibly have unparalleled knowledge of the station’s layout and workings, being able to access and manipulate these systems in a fraction of a blink of an eye. I am not a computer. This creates a bizarre narrative disconnect where Dr. Fisher will casually remark that I need to access the coolant network hub, in a manner that seems to imply prompt results, only for me to spend an inordinate amount of time finding the place I need to be. Let alone scrolling through each of the available cameras looking for whatever terminal or doohickey the game wants me to click on next.

This is not necessarily entirely detrimental, however, as it creates what could be described as the most accurate portrayal of life on a spaceship being dragged into a universal anomaly. “What!? There’s a mysterious hexagon sending cryptic text messages into everyone’s brain? Sorry give me a second, the comms array is still giving me grief”, “Oh there’s a message in the stars? Hopefully its the instruction manual for this bloody astrophysics terminal”.

Stylistically, Observation is absolutely exceptional. The space station environment is fantastically realised. The corridors and modules look straight out of an ISS live stream, and the computer systems the player is tasked with navigating have a gorgeous VCRpunk gloss over them. Coupled with the gloriously ominous electronic soundtrack that no entry into the space disaster genre would be complete without. It’s a game in which presentation completely absorbs and negates any ludonarrative dissonance the mechanics may present. Yes, the game expects you to learn how to be a spaceman on the fly, but boy does it look and sound excellent while it does it.

While the gameplay on offer can be summarised as the adventures of the world’s least competent artificial intelligence. This is not entirely an indictment. The game does not hold your hand beyond giving you distressingly vague instructions as to what to do next. While this will, more often than not, amount to situations that boil down to “SAM, I need you to realign the connector clamps between the Russian Arm and the Universal Hub”, “Excuse me, what?”, it does generally lead to extremely satisfying results. After you spend a half-hour deciphering the interface you’re tasked with interacting with, you are left feeling like you’ve not only solved a puzzle but have a functional understanding of that facet of the ship. The Russian Arm is connected, I’m the smartest computer ever made.

Observation is the kind of game that simply will not resonate with a certain subset of players. If you don’t have the time or the will to stop and ponder upon every detail presented to you, then you will not enjoy this game. If, however, you are prepared to learn how to run a space station, with little to no guidance or instruction, then you’ll find one of the best sci-fi experiences in gaming. Wrapping up in around six hours. If Observation sounds like your cup of tea you will be hard-pressed to find a more intriguing narrative released in such a manageable package, and if you can handle the responsibility of being every member of the Observation’s crew at once then you’ll be halfway to your astronaut qualifications before dinner time. The ship is on fire, become one with the machine and sort it out, would you?

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