The continued melding of human and machine and the question of what the future holds for us makes cyberpunk an increasingly relevant genre. Although we’re only at the cusp of cybernetics and genetic engineering technology, there are soon going to be a whole new set of social and political debates concerning the future of the human race. After all, the paradox of the Ship of Theseus becomes even more of a conundrum when we’re replacing organs, limbs and perhaps even our brains with engineered components.
This is one of the arguments at the core of Observer. This is the second game from Bloober Team, the Polish-based game studio behind the excellent Layers of Fear. On a physical level, it’s a disturbing look at poverty, classism, corporate greed and the morality of genetic engineering and cybernetics. It doesn’t stop there though; the above lead into the major theme of the game: In our effort to better ourselves with technology, will we end up losing our humanity?
Observer Review: Poland, 2084
Observer is set in Krakow, Poland, in the year 2084. In this future, Poland’s governing body is also its largest employer: Chiron Incorporated. After a third world war in the 2050s known as the Great Decimation, the geopolitical makeup of the world has changed dramatically, and Poland stands as a major, though isolationist, global power.
In this future Poland, a caste system assigns each citizen to their lot in life. Class A citizens can travel the country unimpeded and are the wealthiest people in the country and don’t even have to answer to the authorities unless the National Board of Directors orders it. Class B citizens make up the “middle-class” of Poland. Class C makes up around 90% of Poland’s population, and it’s one of their apartment blocks where the game takes place.
Observer Review: Workin’ on a mystery
The character you play as in Observer, police detective Daniel Lazarski, is a Class B citizen. Lazarski is an Observer, part of a special police unit equipped with a cybernetic implant that allows the Observer to connect to other’s neural implants to extract information. After a frantic call from his son, Daniel traces his location to a Class C apartment block, and that’s where we take over.
Events soon transpire that have you locked inside the tenement building, and you must try to find your son by searching through each crumbled and dirty floor. Bloober Team did an excellent job driving home the squalor these Class C citizens are forced to live in. The building has as much character as the humans in the game, as it hides the bizarre and macabre around each turn.
As the game progresses, you’ll not only be figuring out the mystery of your son’s frantic call, but also the stories of the people who live in the building. You’ll meet virtual-reality addicts, uncover illegal organ harvesters and witness the frantic and sad lives of those who are just trying to survive another day. All throughout this, the threat of a disease affecting those with cybernetic implants hangs above you. The nanophage is an omnipresent and real threat for the poor of Observer, and the building lockdown that’s trapped you there typically proceeds the news of an outbreak.
Observer Review: Goin’ wherever it leads
To uncover the answers to all these mysteries, you have several tools at your disposal. Through your cybernetic implants, you can scan for biological and mechanical objects of interest. When you find a scene of particular interest, the game turns into a mode somewhat like LA Noire. You’ll piece together clues that can take you further into the narrative. Sometimes these clues are red herrings that lead you to a dead end, and sometimes you’ll find a side story tangentially related to the main plot.
It would be easy to chock Observer up as a “walking simulator,” because you’re not technically fighting anyone. In fact, aside from some stealth sections, there are no adversaries you have to avoid at all. This game doesn’t need that to feel frantic though. The pace is excellent, balancing the sections where you explore the building with those you spend examining clues or getting plot exposition perfectly. There’s always a feeling of edge in the building, and you never know what you’ll find behind the next apartment door. Will it be a hilarious and awkward interaction with a disgruntled tenant, or will it be an ajar door with a decapitated body inside? There’s no way to tell until you take a deep breath and push on.
Observer Review: Runnin’ down a dream
Particular attention has to be paid to Lazarski’s voice actor, Rutger Hauer. Most notable for his beautiful portrayal of the antagonistic Nexus 6 Roy Batty in Blade Runner, Observer marks his first role in a video game. Hauer’s voice has a lilting timbre that makes the whole game richer as a result. Most of the exposition in the game comes from Hauer as Lazarski’s internal voice, and as he has the most lines in the game by far, a mediocre voice actor in this role would have made for a poor experience overall. Astonishingly though, especially for an indie production, the VA cast as a whole was great. AAA studios need to take note because Bloober Team blew 90% of the games I’ve played from this year away when it comes to the quality of Observer’s script and execution.
It’s entirely possible to fly through Observer and only follow the main plotline. However, to get the most out of the game, you’ll need to leave no stone unturned. The game took me roughly nine hours to beat, and it was nine of the best hours of gaming I’ve had this year. There are some aspects that video game fans might not be fond of though. As much as I loved it, it has a movie feel to it. If you’re craving fast-paced gameplay, Observer may not be for you.
I don’t usually get involved with the “games are art” discussion, but Observer is one shining example of a unique, beautiful, haunting look at what one version of our future may be if we’re not careful. I haven’t gone too deep in describing the game’s narrative because it’s something you should discover on your own, but there is a lot of philosophical and allegorical underpinnings to its story. However, it doesn’t slam that stuff over your head until it’s just not fun anymore. Observer is as much an entertaining sci-fi story as it is commentary or warning, and that’s what makes it such an excellent title. It’s accessible, it’s well-made, and it’s one of the best games this year.
More gaming news and updates
Check out the latest from Mic, like this deep dive into the cultural origins of Gamergate. Also, be sure to read this essay about what it’s like to cosplay while black, a roundup of family-friendly games to play with your kids and our interview with Adi Shankar, producer of the animated Castlevania Netflix series.