Spoilers for Observation (computer game).
This week, I was supposed to get back to books: my plan was scuppered, however, when the book I chose to read turned out to be underwhelming, and then construction work in my neighbourhood made any attempts to read utterly impossible due to the constant noise.
That is why, somewhat late in the day, I would like to talk a little bit about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Devolver Digital’s retro-futuristic baby, and what it can teach us about how games and stories relate to one another.
Growing up, I never saw the point of Shakespeare. I found going over the incomprehensible scripts dry, boring, and entirely forgettable, despite an array of teachers’ best attempts to convince me otherwise. However, it was not until I was doing my GCSEs that I realized the problem: Shakespeare has to be seen in performance to be understood properly, and that performance depends upon the performers for its impact.
This might seem obvious, but theatre inhabits a cultural blind spot. When we watch, for example, the various incarnations of Britain’s Got Talent, we collectively cringe when the poor singers, encouraged and given false hope by the show’s premise, take good songs and ruin them. Theatre is exactly the same: like music, simply reading the script on the page or handing it over to poor actors rarely conveys to anyone but the highly skilled what it will – or should – be like in performance. When I was, eventually, fortunate enough to watch Shakespeare performed by skilled actors, it changed my opinion entirely.
Likewise, cinema makes use of clever tricks to overcome actors’ shortcomings, tricks which are not always available to, or actively undermined by, the formats of cartoons and games.
Consequently, that makes it all the more impressive when a game is able to create and maintain dramatic tension: the script and delivery in Observation are both of excellent quality. Kezia Burrows and Anthony Howell do most of the heavy lifting, but there is no dead weight amongst the members of the cast, all of whom do fantastic jobs.
The narratives are also very good, it is just a shame that there are so many competing for space, which leads us to…
The problem with Observation is that it has spread itself too thinly, and claims to be things which it is not. I have seen it described as an adventure game, as a simulation, and as experimental, none of which rings true except in the most tenuous sense, as viewers of my Twitter feed (HINT HINT SUBTLE HINT) will have spotted.
The narrative is also trying to do and be too many things. Although the obvious homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey (henceforth 2001) is well executed, there are several other strands of the story which simply do not add up. Clarke’s opus rests on a concept that is simple in theory but difficult to execute: the sense of cosmic horror which arises from the actions of an inscrutable and incredibly advanced intelligence. In 2001, the inscrutable intelligences were H.A.L. and the Monolith: in Observation, their parallels are S.A.M. and the Hexagon.
In 2001, the elements of horror fit with the narrative, no matter how strange the events on screen, because there is an element of congruity which matches the capabilities, intentions, and mindset of the non-human villains. Things do not happen simply because it would be scarier if they happened at any given point.
That is not the case in Observation: the capabilities of the aliens and their methods seem completely at odds with one another. They teleport the L.O.S.S., dealing damage to it in the process, but do not bother just teleporting S.A.M. and Emma to the surface; they repeatedly order S.A.M. to protect Emma, emphasizing her importance and supposed fragility, yet magically protect her from the effects of exposure in the final act; they reach out into space to kill Emma’s crew-mates and drive them insane, but only in ways that heighten the drama and horror for the player, rather than what might be most effective for an astronaut or AI; they can manipulate time and space itself to create multiple converging realities and alter the light signals of stars many light-years distant from one another – displaying intimate knowledge of the human genome – in order to kick-start the plot, but they insist upon communicating with other entities in contrived, glowing glyphs and synth brass.
The bizarre actions of the aliens, therefore, seem contrived, and the grand climax – of uniting S.A.M. and Emma – seems logically pointless. Compare this with, for example, the actions of the alien artefact in Studio Trophis’ the white chamber [sic]. All the actions the artefact undertakes are to terrify the protagonist, and so do not seem contrived in retrospect because punishing Sarah with fear and quasi-moral choices is the artefact’s, or Arthur’s, goal, so when the meat moss turns up, bizarre thought it might seem at the time, it does at least have a tenuous link to the originating creature’s motivations, methods and capabilities, just as with the Monolith’s surreal interactions with mankind in 2001. When rust-coloured goop starts sprouting from various parts of L.O.S.S., it does so because… it looks spooky?
The result is that there are several mostly-complete narratives – cosmic horror, a thriller, a murder mystery, slasher horror – which do not quite resolve, nor comfortably relate to one another, a fact which is underscored by…
I do not think that Observation is a very good game. It is well worth your time and money, but it is not a good game, which is a shame, because that is what it is supposed to be. Let me explain.
When I saw the adverts for Observation, I thought it would be a game in which the player, as S.A.M., had to save – or condemn – the station, not unlike how H.A.L. had to in 2001. I thought I would be locking hatches, isolating crew members, shutting off power, and refusing to open the pod bay doors to further my agenda. The overlays and body of the game all felt like I was being set up for precisely that: when the captain regained control, I thought that my time had come, and that equipped with the various mini-puzzles which the game had thus far thrown at me, grudgingly, as a reward for moving awkwardly around the place in that wretched sphere, I would have to protect Emma and trick Jim into imprisoning or killing himself.
But this never materialized. By the time I had finished, I realized that I had not actually done much playing of a game at all. Occasionally there had been puzzles, some of which were poorly explained (because the terminology used by the characters and the game world differed, for example, or sometimes for more arcane reasons, such as a late game process for disabling a security protocol), but most of which were less puzzles and more tasks which had to be executed in a specific way, which is not quite the same thing. Even by the standards of point-and-click adventure games, it was rather on the light side in terms of puzzles and gameplay.
Now, there is not anything wrong with a digital experience like Observation as such, it is simply that, if I am promised a puzzle game in which I get to play as a sinister A.I., I expect a certain amount of gameplay and creative agency. What Observation is, is less a game and more a highly immersive narrative, which – and let me be entirely clear – is laudable in its own right, but is not the same thing as a game. If I am promised a sushi meal and what is served is battered cod and chips, I will be disappointed. Not because I dislike fish-and-chips, but because I had got my hopes up for sushi.
One of the problems with computer games is that the whole medium’s capacity for artistic expression is rubbished by critics of established artistic genres. Meanwhile, pieces like Observation are rubbished by critics of computer games for lacking agency and/or a core mechanic. It seems odd, to me, that we should be so reticent to allow these not-games to have a space to breathe, and an identifying label, all their own. Observation is not an entirely new form of storytelling, in that it has precursors in (for example) the choose-your-own adventure and narrative puzzle books of the 20th Century, but it is clearly a form which is still finding its feet in a digital age: too conservative to emerge from the label of “game”, and too embarrassed to claim to be a story with interactive elements. Until these conflicts are resolved, stories such as Observation, like its gameplay, will remain confused, weighed down by tropes, and unable to realize their potential as either art or entertainment.