The image above is that of a woman trapped at the moment before her violent death, endlessly repeating the combination to a secret door she’ll never reach. It’s just one small sliver of the sci-fi mind-fuckery that awaits in the Rutger Hauer-voiced cyberpunk horror game Observer.
Developed by Bloober Team, the studio behind Layers of Fear, Observer is a psychological cyber-horror game set in a dark, dystopian vision of 2084 Poland. Between war and the nanophage, a deadly virus that targets the cybernetically-enhanced, humanity is pretty much broken. The survivors have submitted to the rule of a shadowy corporation that controls where and how they live.
Veteran Dutch actor Rutger Hauer plays Daniel Lazarski, a corporate-funded cybernetic Observer, a neural detective with the ability to interface with the minds of others and explore their oft-fractured psyches.
Lazarski’s own mind isn’t perfect. He suffers from a condition that requires he take frequent doses of a special medicine or risk “desynchronisation”. The more stressed he becomes the lower his medication levels drop, causing glitches in his perception. He may be an elite cop, but he has the same vulnerable, electronically-accessible mind as most of the remaining humans in 2084. He can’t even trust himself.
The game opens with Lazarski receiving a call from the son he hasn’t seen in years. Adam Lazarski gives his father a warning: “You are not in control.” Then the call drops. Tracing the call to a run-down apartment building out in the sticks, Lazarski rushes off to find his son. When he arrives he finds a decapitated body that may or may not be Adam. As he investigates the crime scene a nanophage alert sends the entire building into lockdown. Lazarski is trapped inside with a murderer, but also something much worse — humanity’s leftovers.
With most of the building’s tenants sealed inside their homes for their “own protection”, much of Lazarski’s interactions with the living involve conversations with small static viewscreens. Hauer’s voice warbles like he has a mouthful of moist pebbles, his inflection occasionally shifting erratically, as if glitched. The people he talks with range from the oddly friendly and upbeat to violent and angry. All of them are lost and broken.
While not learning horrible things about horrible people, Lazarski uses his special cybernetic enhancements to try to solve the murder and find his son. A sort of electronic vision allows him to see and interact with wires, bits of technology, and electrical components, even those buried deep inside human bodies. His biological vision allows him to scan for DNA and analyse blood.
His greatest tool, however, is the ability to jack into the brains of other people and explore their thoughts, hopes and fears. Mostly fears. In the extended clip below, Lazarski enters the mind of a dying murder victim in order to glean information about his attacker. It’s one seriously fucked-up trip.
Developer Bloober Team has earned a reputation for creating creepy horror games. They have mastered the use of off-putting sound and visual cues to layer on the fear. The difference in Observer is they have multiple realities to play with. There’s the real world, which isn’t always real to begin with, and then there’s the mindscape, where anything can happen. These digital mental constructs are packed with horrifying imagery, inventive puzzles, and the odd deadly creature relentlessly hunting for interlopers. Nowhere is safe. As Adam warns at the beginning of the game, Lazarski is not in control.
I’m about five or six hours into Observer, having had to stop playing early this morning because I needed sleep and certainly not because I was frightened. Between the main investigation and the side missions I’ve discovered exploring the future’s most horrible tenement, I have many more hours to go. I’m looking forward to it.
Observer is now available on PC.