I’ll admit to being a little partial to cyberpunk stories. In fact, it might be more than just a little partial in this day and age, since we’re slowly but surely edging closer to turning those stories into reality. The heart of cyberpunk lies in how technology affects the ways that we define ourselves as human beings, and many of the greatest writers in the genre (Harlan Ellison, for instance) incorporated this concept into their work. With Observer we’ve got a story about technology infiltrating the core of what it means to be human: using a tool to force your way into others’ memories and do with them as you will.
Being a cop ain’t easy. You’ve got to work long hours. A lot of people don’t like people in your profession very much. Sometimes suspects don’t talk when you need them to. Dan Lazarski, a detective from the year 2084, is more familiar than most with that last bit – as an Observer, he’s outfitted with cybernetic augmentations that allow him to get the information he needs no matter the cost by interfacing directly with a suspect’s mind. It’s not the nicest profession in the world, and Lazarski’s haunted by demons of his own, not least of which is his estranged son. When said son contacts him one day and leads him to a slum complex in the worst part of town, Dan finds himself relying on his Observer abilities to cut through the grime around him and seek the truth.
If you strip away all the cyberpunk trimming, Observer is basically an old-school adventure game. It’s a puzzle-focused experience where you’re placed into situations, given the tools to solve whatever problems are in your way and put to work. I’m not especially great at this sort of game so I found many of the brain-teasers to be fairly fiendish, though in retrospect a perceptive eye might be enough to help more adept gamers through.
Stripping away that trimming, though, would be doing Observer a disservice. This game has style. Sometimes it’s horrifying style; Dan’s work is messy, to say the least, and without spoiling anything we’ll just say he doesn’t have ideal subjects to work with for a large portion of the game. Entering someone’s mind leads to a surreal, disjointed experience with plenty of scares to go around; sometimes this even incorporates additional gameplay elements like stealth or further puzzles to solve. It’s worth noting that Observer is not playing around when it comes to the thrills, so weaker-kneed players should be warned before they even start: this game does a great job of setting you on edge when it counts.
The focus here is very clearly on blowing the player away with spectacle and it absolutely succeeds on that front. This is a gorgeous game that presents a dystopian cyberpunk experience unlike many others. As the title might suggest, Observer is all about taking in everything around you, visually, aurally and otherwise; Dan’s even capable of using various scanning vision modes to really get the most out of the environment, which works somewhat like Detective Mode from the Batman: Arkham games. There’s a ton of little details to enjoy if you keep your eyes open, making Observer’s world feel alive in a very seedy sort of way.
There’s not a huge amount of action here – this sort of game is really only a half-step or so above a typical walking simulator, and if you follow Popzara you know my usual thoughts on those – but the care and love put into making Observer both fascinating and unsettling has paid dividends. This is a fantastic choice for fans of horror and cyberpunk alike, and this sort of essential marriage between the two genres isn’t the most common. Observer is a unique experience above and beyond its gameplay and it’s absolutely worth checking out.