In 2016, the oddly-named Bloober Team released Layers of Fear, a horror game that mistook quantity of jump scares for quality, throwing scenario after incoherent scenario at you with little-to-no breathing room, leading to a predictable pattern of frights that marched toward obvious plot reveals. I mention this not to beat a dead horse, but to emphasize my own pleasant surprise at just how much I enjoyed their newest release, >observer_, a game that shares a lot of design DNA with its predecessor yet tweaks the formula in smart ways, turning shortcomings into strengths.
Rather than the Victorian horror of the previous game, >observer_ moves things two hundred or so years farther along – 2084, to be exact, in a not-so-subtle nod to the Orwellian surveillance state that comprises near-future Poland (you find a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four early in the game, just in case you didn’t get the allusion the first time). The Chiron Corporation has demolished the democratic structures of the country and now rules over the Fifth Polish Republic, a corporatocratic police state in which everyone lives in Chiron-built housing, watches Chiron-produced news on Chiron-manufactured TVs, and works according to a Chiron-determined caste system.
Daniel Lazarski is an Observer, a detective who has been cybernetically enhanced with the ability to jack into people’s minds and uncover hidden information and memories. Dan fits squarely in the mold of the modern, noir-styled, self-hating, down-on-his-luck detective, the kind that’s too tired or hungover to whip up Bogart-esque witticisms. He’s a willing tool of his corporate overlords but he’s not happy about it.
The game opens in Dan’s fabulously retro-futuristic squad car, where he gets a strange, garbled message from his long-estranged son, Adam. He traces the call to a Class-C Tenement Building and goes to find his son. A grisly discovery in the apartment where the call originated kicks off his investigation, most of which takes place within the oppressive confines of the housing complex.
Lazarski has more or less free rein of the building to explore, investigate, and interrogate tenants (all in first-person using standard WASD controls or a gamepad). While story progression is linear, gated by reaching specific story beats, you’re free to roam, and the game sends you criss-crossing between various sections of the apartment structure, hiding some interesting world-building material and optional content off the beaten path.
Do any reading about >observer_ and you’ll see that much is made of actor Rutger Hauer’s starring role as Daniel. Hauer may not be an A-lister but he has several cult classic roles under his belt, including perhaps the best known, most quoted scene in all cyberpunk-dom: the “tears in rain” soliloquy from Blade Runner. If you were hoping for that kind of raw, vital performance here, you won’t find it. Beyond the inherent sandpaper-y melancholy of his (now 70-plus-year-old) voice, Hauer seems utterly unengaged in his role, with flat line readings and bizarre, inconsistent intonation. With time it fades into the background and stops being a distraction, but unfortunately, this is not a prime example of Hauer’s proven talent.
The real star of the game is its setting. The Class-C Tenement Building is a masterful evocation of cyberpunk themes: “high tech, low life” in particular. All the standard aesthetic markers are here – rain, neon, looming mega-skyscrapers that disappear into the smoggy night sky – but >observer_ sets itself apart in the gritty details: the way the building has parasitically grown into adjacent structures as housing needs outgrew the original architecture, the homebrew technology cobbled together from old and disparate parts, the accumulated trash that seems to pile up in the halls faster than the building’s janitor bot can manage it. It’s both a grotesquely awful place to live and an utterly believable one, immersive and full of grim character.
You’ll explore this dense, atmosphere-rich environment using three different vision modes. Lazarski’s cybernetic enhancements include the ability to scan for relevant technology and biological material. Not only is scanning the environment a personal favorite mechanic for me, it also leans into the biological/mechanical divide that is at the heart of a lot of cyberpunk: every body (living and dead) you encounter contains flesh and metal. Switch on EMP mode and you’ll be able to gather more details on everything from digital picture frames and RC cars to the implants buried deep in the flesh of the recently deceased. Switch to BIO mode and you’ll scan blood types, analyze wounds, and identify the origins of nondescript piles of meat left in someone’s fridge (do you really want to know the answer to that last one?). And of course you’ll use normal old human sight for everything else.
The experience is punctuated by investigation scenes where you scour a room or apartment for clues. The enhanced vision modes turn most of the screen into a churning, monochromatic sea of pixels (with different color schemes for each), only highlighting objects of interest if they are very close by, which means finding all of the clues in an area actually requires a pretty thorough search, checking every nook and cranny for scannable items in both modes. It’s a pleasure exploring the game’s environments, and these investigations encourage slowly taking in all of the detail and clutter.
Unfortunately, either by bug or by design, the game often gave me an objective to ‘Investigate the Crime Scene’ that was never marked complete until I moved on, even after I was sure I had discovered all of the clues. This led to a lot of staring into every cupboard and under every table over and over again just to make sure I hadn’t missed something. I might understand if the intention was to force players to decide for themselves when they were satisfied with an investigation, but the game otherwise relies on explicit objective prompts to guide you, so the ‘Investigate the Crime Scene’ often hung there, haunting me until I either gave up or referred to a guide to ensure that I’d found everything (and I usually had).
Dialogue mostly takes place via video “peepholes” on people’s doors. When you approach an apartment and push the buzzer, the screen lights up with a creepy, distorted close-up of their eyes or mouths. Branching conversation choices appear floating in mid-air, almost as if they are among the game’s many augmented reality projections. As Dan presses the building’s tenants for answers, they reveal their quirks, obsessions, and struggles. From a man who puts on a polite, happy face for the police before running off to beat some “respect” into his children, to a man terrified of having to endure even a few moments without his VR headset, these encounters are short and punchy character sketches that leave an impression and flesh out the game’s twisted, paranoid dystopia.
>observer_ is not a puzzle-heavy adventure, and the few you encounter are rarely much of a challenge, though they are varied enough that they never get boring. From deducing keypad codes to altering a dream-reality by turning a radio knob, the obstacles are short, simple, and rarely outstay their welcome. They’re not the highlight here, but they’re not a problem either. The game even manages the impossible: a good maze sequence. Sadly, while not exactly puzzles, there are a couple of stealth sequences toward the end that are underdeveloped and frustrating, but these are rare enough not to be a major issue.
At several points throughout, Lazarski makes good on his role as an Observer by hacking into people’s heads and exploring their minds. The mind-hack scenarios are where Layers of Fear’s DNA really show through: these are lengthy, linear sequences that largely jettison real-world logic or rules in favor of semi-interactive, impressionistic, dreamlike imagery. In Layers of Fear, there was little else beyond these segments, and since the game’s only real goal was to scare you, there was nothing else to hold your attention once the effect of the constant onslaught of random spookiness wore off. Fortunately, that is not the case here.
In >observer_, the mind-hack sequences are more varied and have greater depth in terms of the mental states they represent. They meld the messiness of human memory with digital technology in visually stunning ways, showing everything from an ex-con’s awful recollections of imprisonment to the elegant but corrupted inner sanctum of an artist (of sorts) who imagines himself to be a renaissance man. With all manner of glitchy shader effects, warping geometry, and unearthly lighting, the hack sequences are often overwhelming and horrific sensory experiences that incoherently tell their owners’ respective stories in a way that manages to coalesce as you begin to parse the frenzied, illogical imagery of the mind, piecing together the character’s history and experiences from the seemingly disparate fragments. The audio design – harsh, ethereal, and intense – seals the deal with a soundscape of garbled, haunting, inhuman noise.
So many parts of >observer_ are so well done, it’s a shame that the story doesn’t quite gel the way one might hope. The first 5 or 6 hours of the game (of 8 or so hours in total) are a slow burn, peeling away elements of the investigation piece by piece. And then, after a point, the game jumps into overdrive. Most of the plot development is crammed into the final 25% of the game, with multiple significant characters and narrative elements breathlessly introduced and quickly discarded within a scene or two. Not only does this feel rushed, these details significantly change the course of the story thematically and tonally. Is it the story of an Orwellian surveillance state? Is it a body horror slasher flick? A meditation on the nature of the soul? In the end, >observer_ is only superficially any of these things. It would have been better for a game of this scope to zero in on one or two of its myriad ideas and really explore them.
Even so, >observer_ is well worth checking out. It may not delve its ideas in terribly deep ways, but it is an intense, moody experience. By taking the style of storytelling from Layers of Fear and – ahem – layering more world-building and interactivity on top of it, Bloober Team has taken a concept that quickly wore out its welcome before and turned it into one of the most vital, interesting parts of >observer_. Come for the slick cyberpunk visuals, stay for the fascinating expression of human hopes and fears as a waking digital nightmare. I guarantee you’ll find it more interesting than it seems Rutger Hauer did.