FBT is in Rutger Hauer’s head. Rutger is in a dead person's head.
Not sure who of the three is worst off.
In 2084, a megacorp has taken control of Poland following a tech-plague affecting the transhuman populace. A specialist force, known as Observers, police the survivors by hacking into their implants to investigate crimes. When Observer Lazarski receives a call from his estranged son, he enters a tenement slum only to become trapped inside both the building and the minds of the inhabitants as he investigates his son’s fate.
Observer is like some David Lynch remake of a French expressionist film that was based on Blade Runner as told to David Fincher as he directed a NiN video after he’d eaten a Guatemalan Insanity Pepper while partying at Keith Richards’ house. It’s a completely inscrutable, insane, higher-consciousness trip that leaves you feeling like you’ve stared at a strobe light for eight hours while listening to Rammstein. It’s one of those games that only really makes sense to the developers, who can’t understand what all the fuss is about.
Still, developers Bloober Team are experts at head-messing; Layers of Fear, The Medium - those guys like their sanity-messing nightmares. But Observer is as much of a nightmare to play as to experience.
Its execution is great. Trapped in the decaying building, it’s little more than a claustrophobic corridor that seems to close in on you like a cyber-punk version of the hotel in Barton Fink, baring down as you knock on doors, interrogate tenants, hear disembodied voices, investigate clues and try to make sense of the mounting body-count you uncover.
Cool too is being Rutger Hauer. Obviously that evokes Bladerunner, as if the visuals weren’t already heavily indebted to the film, but his honey-tinged yet threatening voice works so well; a dogged but determined, not to be f*ked with gumshoe hoping against all the evidence that his son is still alive. The problem is instead of Ridley at the helm, we’ve got Tony Scott.
It’s the only game I’ve played where that seizure warning is actually a promise. As Lazarski tries to navigate the minds of those he jacks into, he’s subjected to an extraordinary level of flashing, jump-cuts, fuzzy lines, rapid movement, altering perspectives and shifting focus. It’s pure chaos and in the midst of it, you’re expected to solve puzzles and challenges – I keep falling into a fugue state, an altered reality where I am my PC and my PC is me. It’s like being in a real dream and just as confusing. One sequence has me chasing a shower stall. In all honesty, it gave me a cracking headache every time I entered a mindscape, to the point I was loathe to do so. It’s literally nauseating.
And if you do survive the onslaught of images, the final sequence of each dream has you trying to evade a lumbering Borg-like thing searching for you. A representation of the plague virus, trying to avoid the cyber-big-daddy is a mix of careful movement and luck. Mostly luck. Those sequences are like listening to someone describe their dream; annoying.
Within a few hours of corridor-pounding, I begin to suspect my son’s been murdered by a door. You spend most of your time opening and closing them, manually. Click, hold, pull or push. This place is supposed to be a slum but I think the landlord might have been my Dad given how many times I meet a closed door. Is there a draught? Am I letting the heat out? Its infuriating, but once things do heat up it becomes a key mechanic, opening a door just a crack to see what’s behind it, but until then, it’s a real pain in the mouse trying to get about.
Besides the doors, walking around the corridors is a slog too; up and down stairs trying to find an apartment, knocking on doors and interrogating the locals in largely redundant dialogue choices, you realise there’s not really a lot of point in us being here; we don’t make the logic leaps or piece it together, we’re just opening doors for Rutger. It’s a real pain until the nightmare-puzzle sequences, and then it’s a different kind of pain.
The slow progress does drag. You have two scans available to spot items of interest, but I’m not sure who is finding them interesting. Much like an old-school puzzler, you’ll pick up an item then put it down then later get sent back there to pick it up again. Or he’ll spot a picture frame so you wait while he scans it then says “it’s a picture frame” and puts it down. Why?!
So after you do scan something relevant, you get the clue, figure which of the identical apartments it relates to, and pick your way through a crime-scene while trying to avoid the body on the floor demanding you jack into it. Pass me the Hedex Extra, I’m going in.
This wants to be more Bladerunner than Bladerunner but it’s just the look not the soul of it; corrupt mega-corp, downtrodden lower-classes, a rundown building, retro-future look, rain-drenched neon with pigeons flying about as hover-cars and floodlights pass overhead and huge adverts play on the sides of skyscrapers. Still, while vom-inducing, the nightmare sequences are often incredibly clever, subversive experiences; a trip through someone’s first day at the megacorp is actually a fairly accurate representation of the nightmare of working in an office, apart from the wiring that slithers about like a snake... But most of the time it’s like being subjected to the Ludovico Technique. It’s put me off gaming. Next time I see a Seizure warning I’ll feel compelled to turn the PC off.
Ultimately, Observer is barely a step up from a walking sim, but I’m not sure the story is really compelling enough to just be dragged along by it – it has it's twists and it’s incredibly inventive, but it takes a lot of doors to get through it. The ending seems to question what is the point of it all, and that is kinda what I was wondering; but by then I had too much of a headache to care.