Whether or not you suffer from simulator sickness, Observer will make you queasy. For better and worse, that’s the point of the game, which uses a cyberpunk detective framework to meditate on augmented reality and consciousness. You, as protagonist Daniel Lazarski, are meant to be losing control, especially when Dan, a so-called “observer,” investigates crime scenes by hacking into and reliving the neural memories of victims (shades of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell). But whereas Dan can inject himself with a drug that stabilizes his visions, getting rid of the compression artifacts that appear when he becomes too stressed, players have no such recourse. For us, the feeling, to paraphrase Dan, is one that you will simply have to get used to.
Observer is deliberately obtrusive: Dan’s scanners actually make it harder to see within certain spectrums, emotional trauma causes visual glitches, and the game’s many corridors are bland and labyrinthine. But it’s worth sticking with Observer because of its uniquely untrustworthy POV and intriguing cyberpunk setting—two things that serve to align players with Dan’s distressed psyche. Throughout, the monotony of the game’s location—a rundown apartment building in Krakow’s slums—is compensated for with illusory augmented reality sequences, plus the aforementioned mind-hacking.
The decision to present dialogue with neighbors through semi-static displays on the intercom (which look a bit like the character Max Headroom) isn’t just a cheap way to avoid extraneous character models; it’s also an effective way in which to emphasize the isolating effect that technology has on people. Even the sluggish imprecision of Dan’s twin scanners—one for biological objects like blood and flesh and one for electrical frequencies that point to embedded chips and metallic implants—serves the narrative, illustrating as it does the thin line between an organic and technological entity.
Observer works best with players in a somewhat passive role, trying to make sense of all the sensory-overloading content. Whereas similarly bleak and gritty future-noirs like Deus Ex: Human Revolution overstay their welcome by reiterating their plots every chance they get, Observer casually drops bits of information on its in-game websites and optional conversations, inviting players to take in only as much of the story as they want. The plot isn’t stuck following up on the cultish lives of those so-called Immaculate, who live their lives without implants, nor does it get hung up on the details of a tattoo artist who embeds tech within his digital ink. These elements flesh out Dan’s post-nanophage world without distracting from his mission; if anything, they heighten the sense of what Freud called the unheimlich, with each new bit of information creating a further sense of unease with what is otherwise familiar.
While Observer does an excellent job of visualizing the external world, though, it stumbles in relating Dan’s internal struggle. This is largely due to casting: Rutger Hauer is a big-name catch for developer Bloober Team, but he mumbles through his lines as if he’s Tommy Wiseau. Worse, while the game revolves around Dan’s attempts to reconnect with his estranged and possibly murdered son, the fragmentary presentation of his memories and Hauer’s unemotional delivery makes it difficult to care about Dan’s crisis.
The game is best when Dan shuts up, leaving players to question what they’re seeing. At one point, you’ll escort a floating drone that cries like a baby through pitch-dark corridors, using its umbilical cord as a flashlight. Elsewhere, you’ll crawl through an electrical cornfield, dodging the dystopian Big Brothers overhead. You’ll even navigate a maze of pustulent tentacles and metallic wiring that seem born out of a Harlan Ellison novel. It’s a shame that these highlights come across as vignettes, scattered and incapable of building momentum or taking on new significance down the road. Worse are a few forced stealth sequences in which a horrific creature must be avoided; these aren’t only difficult to control, but they’re irrelevant to the plot. If anything, this unnecessary gamification only emphasizes how out of place parts of Observer are, and that’s the wrong sort of unsettling.