Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Console Corner: Review of Observer

While Bruce Sterling and William Gibson would likely argue differently, there is no denying the popular appeal of what has come to mean ‘cyberpunk’ in the broader cultural mindset.  Mostly a visual understanding, images of dirty neon streets, people augmented with technology, urban sprawl, and dark static skies beneath which thieves, corporate thugs, and hackers co-exist spring quickly to mind.  Taking this motif and working it nicely into a game is Bloober Team with 2017’s Observer.

The gritty game playing out over the course of one night, players take on the role of Detective Daniel Lazarski, special investigator in the Krakow police department.  Getting ready to start work, he gets a mysterious phone call from his son Adam who is in need of help.  Arriving at his son’s broken down, slum apartment, he discovers a headless body on the floor.  Using his digital and biology implants to search the room, Lazarski discovers that A) the body does not likely belong to his son, and B) one of the neighbors may have further information.  As rain splashes down the gutters of the slum building, Lazarski gets to the bottom of the murder in a fashion only cyberpunk offers.

Observer is not a typical action-detective game.  Dialogue and clue-based puzzle solving interspersed with bits of cat-n-mouse action sequences, Observer is, if anything, a slow burn that pays itself off in the form of unique story, horror, and visual art complementing the medium.  In today’s age of gaming, it deserves full recognition as uniquely such.  Gamers looking for something off the beaten path with a dirty cyberpunk feel should definitely look into it.

Such a game leaning on the strength of its environments, Observer delivers in spades.  Walking around the near-future slums and tattoo parlors, mini-apartments and trash-strewn alleyways is a William Gibson dream (nightmare?).  The dirty side of a corporate-run world has never looked so “good”.  Add to this the detailed crime scenes, and you’ve got a highly specific, realistic vision. 

Lazarski required to hack into the minds of several victims, the realism takes a backseat, however, in a way that can only be described as fragmented nightmares.  Connecting to the victim’s mind, Lazarski must examine their thoughts, memories, and everything between to understand how they died, and start to put the pieces of the murders together.  These hacking sequences often involving cat-n-mouse chases, it forces the player to question: how well the chases complement the overall game, particularly its conclusion.  I personally can’t help but feel puzzles of a different variety might have been more appropriate, but if one of the aims was to parallel the horrors of virtually augmented lives under the control of corporations with the horrors of the mind, then I think it’s fair to compliment Blooper.  The conclusion is, indeed, dark.

The game boasts the voiceover acting of Rutger Hauer—a seeming coup given Hauer’s involvement with Blade Runner, a movie whose mood game developers clearly tried to capture.  Hauer, however, attempts to add an aloof, seniors home type of mood.  Overall, his performance doesn’t fit the game.  For example, Hauer’s inflection and dictation often seem out of sync with scenes.  He sounds high or distant, which doesn’t fit the gritty neon street motif.  A gruff, world-weary style would have fit the game significantly better.  Moreover, when Lazarski is in conversation with other characters that Hauer did the voiceover for, it’s often difficult to tell the two characters apart, the voicing too similar. 

Overall, Observer remains a unique gaming experience.  Largely a dark, psychological puzzle, the dilemmas players must resolve are largely environmental with clues appearing in a variety of forms.  The action occurs as players attempt to escape the minds of the subjects Lazarski hacks.  These mind hacking scenarios are hit or miss, depending how much the player associates the related horror elements with cyberpunk.  But it still must be appreciated that Blooper went beyond standard gameplay to integrate art in edgy fashion.

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