Space is kinda terrifying when you think about it. It can be unsettling taking the wrong turn in Wales and winding up surrounded by fields and sheep with nothing but your SatNav for company -- imagine being trapped on a space station and looking out of your window to see nought but the immeasurable black void staring back. You can't just Google "nearest pub" and get a pint to settle the nerves until your mum comes to get you. Observation knows that being lost and alone is scary, and then uses the innate horror of space to amplify that feeling of isolation to an impressive degree.
When the game begins, something has gone terribly wrong on a space station orbiting the Earth, and there's no way to tell how many of the crew have survived the ordeal. The lighting here is brilliantly utilised, shining through the window at regular intervals to let us know that the station - or something outside of it - is spinning out of control. We're seeing through the eyes - or rather, the station's camera network - of the on the board A.I. S.A.M. who has apparently been temporarily offline and lost some functionality due to the aforementioned incident. Quickly, we're introduced to Dr. Emma Fisher, who is determined to find any survivors, and she'll need S.A.M.'s help to do so.
From here, it's your job to assist Emma in various tasks, using the many cameras strewn across the beleaguered station as your eyes and ears. An early objective sees you searching for the location of a fire on board, which means quickly checking through different locations, and then using your connection to the on board network to open the relevant doors so Emma can get there and put it out before there's catastrophic damage. Later, you'll gain access to more tools so you can assist in more involved ways, including the ability to hack into a Sphere - a floating, orbicular drone - that you can control to manually traverse the station and outside of it, when necessary.
Playing as the on board A.I. rather than simply controlling Emma - who is for all intents and purposes, the protagonist of the story - is an interesting and unusual decision. It pays off because she's a likeable lead in an awful situation who you'll want to help, and knowing that you can't directly control her to get her away from danger adds to the drama. S.A.M. is a functional A.I. rather than a personable one, so don't expect him to be dishing out any sass - think the ship computer in Star Trek: The Next Generation rather than the one in Mass Effect 2. That's not to say you won't grow attached to him over the course of the story -- as the various mysteries of the plot unfold, his role becomes more important, and he ultimately grows into quite an intriguing co-lead.
Observation features an enigmatic narrative that builds steadily throughout the game, with twists and turns being hurled at you at a fairly regular pace, and each new development conjuring more questions than answers. If you're the sort of person that likes a story to dot all of the i's and cross all of the t's then you might find yourself left wanting by the somewhat scant answers that the denouement to the tale provides. For our part, we could perhaps have done with a mite more closure, but the lack of an endgame exposition dump to reveal every intricacy of the plot will probably suit some players, too. Either way, from first to last, the story is both compelling and regularly surprising, and the lead characters are likeable thanks to some quality writing and voice acting.
If there's a problem with Observation, it's that the story is occasionally hampered by pacing issues thanks to some unclear objectives that left us bewildered, spending far too long wondering how to progress. Sometimes you'll be asked to do something and, since it's unlikely that you've ever worked on a space station before, the command might sound confusing to you, but there's little to help other than the option to ask Emma what she wanted again.
At one point you're tasked with finding the co-ordinates for Earth so that Emma can send a message, and this involves perusing some incredibly confusing space maps that look more like Rorschach tests than actual maps. With no idea which splodge on the chart looks most like home, you'll wind up having to simply move through each and every one until you're told you've found the right one. Another task involves leaving the station to find an astronaut holding on to the exterior, but since the station is bigger than the village you grew up in and almost entirely white, and the person we're looking for is dressed head to toe in - you guessed it - white, a waypoint might have been nice. Breathtaking views from out there, though.
Speaking of views, it would be remiss of us to finish this review without talking more about the sights and sounds you'll experience in Observation, which are both generally impressive. Thanks to the filter applied to the cameras that S.A.M. sees through, there are moments in the game that almost look like they could be genuine footage. The illusion fades when we see Emma without her helmet on - the lip-synching in particular is rather wonky - but there's some spectacular scenes to behold that more than make up for it. The sparse use of music is a wise decision, while the muted sound effects thanks to the vacuum of space complement some scenes perfectly. It'd probably be quite awesome on PlayStation VR.
Observation uses the unfathomable vastness of space to wonderful effect, conjuring a palpable sense of both isolation and dread that rarely falters across the six or seven hours it'll take for you to see it though. Minor quibbles with some aspects of the storytelling and a couple of quality of life issues don't detract from what is an engrossing adventure that thrills far more frequently than it frustrates.