Ever since it came out, I’ve had this odd fascination with observer, a cyberpunk horror game. I’ve played it multiple times; I’ve bought the game on multiple platforms.
Which is strange, because it’s really not a good game.
The time and place where we play games can have the strangest of effects on us. Being drunk certainly doesn’t help. But that state of inebriation was how I got my introduction to the Blade Runner inspired adventure, which begins in a derelict apartment complex with a bloodied corpse.
It started thanks to a former colleague and friend, Hayley, who absolutely loved Layers of Fear. The quirky indie from Bloober Team, a studio based out of Poland, somehow straddled the line between P.T. and Amnesia, without using supernatural elements or villains for cheap scares. It was surprisingly clever, so when Bloober Team announced they were working on observer, naturally it was going to catch our eye.
But life intervenes in weird ways. Nobody in the office jumped on observer when it came out, and it was only at a party some time after the game’s release that I mucked around with it for the first time.
Putting it simply: it’s a good thing I was drunk.
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.Read more
The thing that Mikey didn’t really call out above in his first impressions above was that observer is beset with what might be one of the worst control schemes I’ve used in a video game. Most of the controls, if you’re playing on a mouse/keyboard or controller, are fairly standard. What’s buggered are the basic interaction keys. Whenever you want to do something, like open a door, you have to hold down a button and then move the right stick (or mouse) in the direction you want to move it. If it’s a door and it opens outwards, then you have to hold a button and push the left stick back. (On the Switch, it’s ZL.) This gets worse on PC, where you have to hold down the left mouse button and drag the mouse backward.
Remember SimGolf back in the day, where every golf swing had to be a perfectly straight mouse movement? Now imagine fumbling about in the dark through a shitty apartment complex that’s constantly got a bad Instagram filter over the whole screen, looking for clues, and that’s a small degree of what the observer experience is like.
One of the big drawcards of observer is the late Rutger Hauer, who voices Daniel Lazarski, the player character investigating the apparent murder of his son. Hauer adopted a very slow, low drawl for the majority of the game, giving most of his lines a stitled, halting performance. The whole post-plague world that observer inhabits centres on this digital plague that has ravaged Poland, so occasionally you’ll run into other characters that have a delivery that’s even more broken than Hauer’s.
You can’t really blame Hauer for sounding disinterested. It makes the game a bit difficult to stick with, but I wouldn’t fault Hauer for that.
Most of observer is largely moving from one spot to another, working through the jump scares and the darkness until you get to the occasional puzzle segments. Where you play the game can change the difficulty, unintentionally so: I missed a couple of clues playing observer on the Switch because the brightness of the screen and the visual quality was so horrifically low that I couldn’t even see some objects that were five feet away from me. I’d bought the Switch version because I wanted to finally finish the game after that initial drunken experience, but after three hours of fumbling around with the Switch’s antiquated handheld screen, I gave up and just bought the game again on PC.
After 30 minutes on the PC, I’d reached the same point I hit on the Switch in two and a half hours. The controls were just as annoying – holding and dragging with the mouse is an awful way to play a first-person adventure game, especially since most puzzles don’t require precise inputs to begin with – but at least I could see where I was going.
There’s tons of other annoyances: constant filters over the screen to emulate the sense of paranoia and psychosis that eventually lose their charm, weird memory sequences with stealth sequences that only serve to arbitrarily pad gameplay, sketchy performance in places even on a rig that’s well beyond the minimum or recommended requirements, and an exceedingly narrow FOV that makes navigating the tight hallways a pure pain.
That said, I’m still enjoying working my way through the barriers. It’s partly because I like the principle behind observer‘s world, even if the execution falls apart at every turn. Rebelling against a megacorporation in the wake of a natural (or manufactured) disaster is a perfectly workable base for a story, and leaning on Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell elements, with some Remember Me memory remixing, is a great pitch.
So it’s the thought of that which is carrying me through, tinged with a degree of self-determination to cross something off my Pile of Shame. It’s cathartic, really, to work your way through something despite its faults. It’s something every gamer should do from time to time: not only is it a reminder of the themes, performances and mechanics we like, but it reinforces your appreciation for the games that nail it out of the gate, and the ones that come ever so close.