On its surface, Observation rings a familiar tune: a psychological thriller about an empty space station careening through the void as it faces a vague alien threat. However, Observation’s originality stems from its unique player perspective and reduction in player consequence. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s start by examining the perspective frequently given in horror games.
A Brief Examination of Identity in Horror
To better elucidate what makes the player perspective of Observation so unique, let’s first examine one of the most popular survival horror games of all time: Resident Evil 4. In RE4, there are no misgivings about who the main character is.
From the series recap narrated by Leon to the first seconds of controlling the camera over his shoulder, it is obvious whose story is being told. More insidiously, the game uses Leon’s quick-jab humor and outward cynicism to create a dialogue with the player. Leon is relatable, therefore it is easier to empathize with him, ultimately making his fear the player’s fear, his pain the player’s pain. Every gameplay mechanic serves not only to create a sense of hopelessness in the player, but also to nurture the relationship the player has with Leon.
This dynamic is not unique to Resident Evil or even survival horror; in Ancient Greece, audience members would align themselves emotionally with the experience of heroes like Odysseus. So surely, such a telltale tradition of storytelling would be carried out in a game like Observation, right?
Observation Creates a Lack of Empathy from the Player for SAM
Observation places the player not in an overhead camera controlling a person, but in the first-person perspective of SAM, the onboard AI responsible for controlling all the systems and life support of the ship. It is readily apparent that SAM is inspired by past science fiction AI “personalities”, including 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Hal and Interstellar’s TARS.
The subtle effects of controlling such a role are that the player’s empathy is unable to be successfully related with SAM. Whether it is due to his slow, robotic controls (hijacking cameras and pushing a floating orb are your two primary methods of movement) or his lack of a centralized presence (SAM is both everywhere and nowhere on the ship; in another game, he could have easily been the villain), the player is never truly able to place themselves in SAM’s virtual shoes. This compounds with his ambiguous role in the story to create a sense of mistrust with the persona we are supposed to understand the most.
But if the player cannot relate to anyone in the game, they would surely feel a lack of presence in the world. Why would the developers choose to do this?
SAM is not the Main Character, Emma is
While our simple button inputs may control SAM’s actions, the game makes it clear that SAM is not the character to be related with. That role is left to Emma. One of the crew members aboard the space station, Emma directs SAM to operate doors, find keycodes, and solve puzzles. In doing so, she also congratulates SAM’s progress despite its unfeeling nature.
Emma attempts to personify SAM as a safeguard for her sanity in the same way that the player is apt to. In a roundabout way, this is one of the links connecting the player’s empathy to her rather than SAM.
Foregoing surface-level similarities such as her being human, the player is easily able to relate to her very real sense of dread and confusion throughout the game, even though SAM itself has no actual threat of death. In this manner, Observation relies to some extent on past gameplay relationships a player has built with survival horror characters to elaborate on a foundation of mutual struggle.
While I can’t, in a gameplay sense, relate to Emma’s pain in the same way I could with Leon’s, I am able to supplant that past relationship with Leon into my new one with Emma (i.e., I know what it felt like to control Leon in an unforgiving survival horror world, therefore I understand what Emma is going through).
Unlike Leon, however, I can only wait for the game to tell me whether or not she is okay, rather than use my power as the player to alleviate her situation.
Observation Relies on Removing the Player’s Sense of Control
Observation uses this empathetic dynamic for Emma in order to scale up the horror tenfold. Another way to phrase “being in control of SAM” is to call it “not being in control of Emma.”
When Emma suffers, the player is mostly unable to undo that suffering, left with the feeling of helplessness probably even worse than what would be felt if the player controlled her.
It becomes clear that, from a narrative perspective, if Emma’s story ends, the entire story ends; Observation could be reduced to an extremely elaborate, yet not at all difficult escort quest. And to elaborate on the idea of Observation lacking in difficulty, there are no “fail conditions” in the game.
As stated earlier, SAM cannot die, but this is even more true in the sense that any failed puzzle will be a minor setback, not actually causing the ever-looming threat to draw closer.
While it may sound like this makes the game lose its sense of danger, it simultaneously enhances the aforementioned feeling of helplessness. If a failure does not bring the threat closer, then a success does not draw it back. The closely knit narrative structure of the game forces the player to forego a sense of consequence on the story.
As the title suggests, the player is only able to observe the tragic happenings on the space station as they unfold.
What is the result of this lack of consequence? A story that feels tragically unchangeable and painfully cyclical. I found myself replaying Observation, not to try to experience it differently, but to reimmerse myself in a world which gave me no control over its outcome, that would spiral toward catastrophe whether or not I played it.
What stuck with me was not Observation’s ambiguity or incomprehensibility, but its inevitability. Even as I write this, I’m left with the feeling of long-standing existential dread that can only be experienced from truly successful cosmic horror.