As soon as No Code's Observation was revealed the concept caught our eye. We've seen sci-fi stories with an AI-controlled spaceship many a time before in both games and film, but the idea of putting you in the shoes of the AI itself was not only innovative but helps provide a new spin on an existing formula. Observation is reinventing the wheel, in a sense, and we caught up with studio co-founder Jon McKellan recently to talk about the game and the studio that brought this intriguing concept to life.
Before we talk about how the concept came to life, it's worth talking about how the studio has grown. Formed of triple-A talent, No Code is based in Glasgow, but Observation wasn't entirely developed in-house. Through the various links that the members of the studio had established over the years, there were many hands to help with what they were doing.
"I mean, there's only 11 of us in the studio," McKellan explained. "When we started Observation there was only four of us [...] so some of us have known each other a really long time, you know, myself and Omar [Khan] - the other co-founder - have known each other since we were like four years old or something. Quite a few people in the studio are family, and stuff like that, so it was quite interesting working together in that way, but it was this gradual build-up of a team as our needs grew."
While Observation first sprouted as an idea back in 2016, there was something that would arrive before it saw the light of day, which was Stories Untold. This was released the year after, but despite the acclaim it received, it turns out that it was more of a side project alongside Observation rather than its own dedicated product.
"That was quite interesting because we started working on the prototype for Observation back in the start of 2016 I think it was, and kind of shopped that around to some publishers and got a lot of interest in it, but it took such a long time for things like contracts and stuff to get signed that we made Stories Untold in the meantime, as a kind of stopgap before Observation would kind of kick off, and Stories Untold actually became a bit of a road test for some of the ideas that we had about puzzles and about gameplay mechanics in storytelling," McKellan told us
"So it became a test bed for us, the type of puzzles that we like to make and the type of gameplay we wanted to do. We got to road test some of those ideas before we actually started production, so Stories ended up becoming a bit of like a pre-production game jam almost, and we didn't know really what anyone was going to think of it, but it felt kind of like a low risk, 'let's see what happens, see whether people like this kind of game, like this kind of storytelling, and see what we can learn from it'. And yeah, Stories has done far better than we thought it would, both critically, with streamers, people really took to it, and so we kind of felt like 'okay, maybe we're on the right path', and it was more about looking at the mistakes we made on that project and try and smooth those edges out and make a more accessible version of that in a sense. So Observation I think definitely has more of an accessibility thing than Stories did, which was very obtuse, and deliberately so. But yeah, trying to smooth out the experience and make people get on board a lot easier was one of the main things we kind of took from that."
While Stories Untold was being developed and delivered, Observation was bubbling under the surface, an idea that sprouted from an article about Alien no less. This wasn't just a coincidence because McKellan and some of his colleagues had worked on Alien: Isolation at Creative Assembly, it also served to lay the groundwork for some of the ideas and themes we saw come to life in Observation.
"Years ago I had read an article about the original Alien film - and I need to try and find the article now because obviously it's had quite a big impact on our lives now - but it was an article about that film told from a different perspective, of what the events of that film were like if you had the alien as the protagonist. And in that film, you know, the alien goes around killing people and people try flushing it out of airlocks and all this kind of stuff, but from the alien's perspective it was just this creature that had been born in a weird environment and then the crew started trying to catch it and kill it, and it kind of put a different spin on things, and I started thinking about... like that really fascinated me as a story that I knew so well being told from a different perspective, so I started thinking about other films and other sci-fi tropes that we've explored a lot but maybe not from certain angles."
"And then 2001 was a classic, and many other films like it, that kind of cover sentient AI and self-awareness and what that means, but it's always human-centric, it's always from the human's perspective of what it's like to deal with that as a problem. And it was kind of like 'what was 2001 like for HAL?' HAL had found himself being self-aware and making decisions that he's never done before, and what would that mean? The decisions that you might make or what it must feel like, in a sense. To suddenly be aware and conscious is a very bizarre and alien thing, so what can we do with that? And then it kind of just sprung out from there - just stories from a different angle, stuff that we knew and could relate to in some way, but flip the perspective on it."
It wasn't just these two iconic sci-fi films that had an impact on Observation's inception though, as there were other more contemporary points of reference, even extending into the horror genre:
"This idea of telling a story at a distance. You know, it's almost like theatre rather than film sometimes."
"Yeah, I mean a lot of classic sci-fi, some modern stuff as well like Gravity and Interstellar and stuff like that were... regardless of the subject matter it was just the setting, whether it was contemporary sci-fi or far future stuff, and there was a whole bunch of things there to try and build a world around this concept. I think, weirdly - even though I'm not a huge fan of them - a lot of found footage movies became an obsession for a while, like Paranormal Activity and Blair Witch and stuff, just this idea of telling a story at a distance. You know, it's almost like theatre rather than film sometimes, where the action's happening quite far away from the camera, and the viewer kind of searches a frame for something rather than just being shown the story. So I kind of got hooked on that kind of stuff in a similar way. So yeah it's been quite a wide mix. Mostly it's been films and TV rather than games. I think just trying to create this much more cinematic experience of this sci-fi story didn't start off being about the gameplay - it started off being about 'right, how do we tell a story in this way', in a way that I think can only really be done interactively. You couldn't really do Observation as a film because it would just be a found footage style movie."
With the ideas for Observation nailed down at a conceptual level, then came the time to put it into practice, which came with its own challenges. SAM (Systems Administration & Maintenance) is the AI in control of the vessel called Observation in the game, and the priority for the team was making the experience of being SAM as high quality as possible, despite the small size of the team and the limitations they faced.
"We've kind of managed to build a game that looks like it's made by more than 11 people."
"The original concept was fairly solid, and comparing the prototype to what we have now, we made the game we wanted to make, which we're really happy about, but obviously the scope got a lot bigger and our ambition grew and stuff like that, so it's been an interesting process," McKellan told us. "Most people are ex-triple-A in some way, so we're bringing a lot of experience back from big projects where we can try and do things kind of properly but in a scrappy way, which is tricky, but we've kind of managed to build a game that looks like it's made by more than 11 people, which is kind of what we were hoping for, that we didn't have to settle for super-stylised or simplified visuals or things like that."
"So yeah, it's been a really interesting project to make. Everyone's a bit of a jack of all trades - we kind of all muck in on different things and it's essential to be able to do that, so yeah, I think everyone's had a good time making the game because of that - we've all had to do very different things. And quite a few people were ex-Alien as well. I'm the only one in the core team that worked on Alien, but outsource-wise we used the same concept artist, the same character artists, some of the effects guys - some of them, we're still quite close and help each other out in projects and stuff, so it was great to get them in. And I think that contributes to why some people think it looks like Alien: Isolation 2 - it's just because it's the same people making the same style for big chunks of the visuals, and I think that still resonates, which is quite cool."
"Some people think it looks like Alien: Isolation 2 - it's just because it's the same people making the same style for big chunks of the visuals."
It's clear there were limitations with the studio's size, and that the team didn't want to compromise on their creative vision, but how does crunch fit into this? Considering the growing list of studios that have had reports of crunch and overworked staff over the last year, we asked how McKellan and his team handled their workloads, and whether they managed to avoid the dreaded crunch:
"It's definitely a tricky one. I'm not sure we avoided it too well. We never forced anyone to crunch and we did our best not to crunch, but I guess out of passion and limited resources there was a lot of late nights for some of us as we tried to just get it to the level we wanted to. But I think we did a lot of clever stuff at the start, where we were able to create modular environments and build creative mo-cap systems for being able to rapidly prototype animations and things like that, so we did do a lot of work in the beginning to make it possible. I think if we hadn't done that, the game would've never shipped the way that it did or be a couple of years late. So it was a big concerted effort to play to our strengths and build a game revolving around what we're good at and what we're fast at, rather than just 'anything goes and we have to hire loads of people' or whatever. We had a limited budget but to try and tell a story where people would engage with the characters and stuff; we couldn't take too many shortcuts, and it became just a lot of hard work. But I think we're all really proud of what we've done and we've learned a lot from that process moving onto whatever we do next."
Having come up with the idea of making SAM the protagonist in this flipped script idea, then came the mechanics. It's all well and good having an interesting concept and story, but if a game isn't fun to play that invalidates everything else. There are a variety of puzzles that you have to solve as SAM when you're helping Emma Fisher find out what's happened to her missing colleagues on board the space station, and it turns out putting all these pieces together wasn't too taxing for No Code.
"Well, it was quite quick," McKellan said. "Very quickly we had a rough outline of the plot of the game and what scenarios were gonna occur - or what we thought would occur - and then we tried to work out what would Emma be doing in this section, and what would SAM be doing? How would they work together? How would they bump up against each other or separate? What are the different dynamics we can play with in each scene? And then what would those puzzles be?"
"And a big part of Observation and Stories Untold was that every puzzle is bespoke, and we tend not to reuse stuff too often, which is expensive to make but means that we can kind of genre-hop quite a lot and we can just use whatever design tools are necessary for that part of the story without having to kind of commit to 'right we do this one puzzle over and over and over again'. We can just change it up as we see fit, and we spent a lot of time working out 'okay what would SAM do? And what would his role be in any of these situations?' And then start to apply some twists to that to fit the evolution of SAM into the story and the conversation system became a huge thing quite early on with the response mode and things like that, so it was kind of like an exploratory process over the first six months, where we tried to match up bespoke gameplay to each section of the story and then weave our way round that and make changes and throw things out and bring new things in. And then as we playtested we started to learn new things and try new stuff out, so it was quite experimental at the beginning and then we started to hone those ideas as time went on."
When you're not solving puzzles and fiddling with the technology on the ship, you're interacting with and witnessing the behaviours of the characters within the plot, which forms the core of the narrative you're experiencing. Stories Untold was mostly without dialogue, but the acting in Observation brings characters like Emma Fisher to life, something which proved a new and exciting challenge for McKellan and his team:
"This was my first time... I mean, we had some dialogue in Stories Untold, but it was very one-sided, like it was just instructions for the most of it, whereas this time it was conversations and it was all quite new to me. So I don't know whether it's directly related but I went with actors that I'd worked with before because I knew they could bring their own skill set and wouldn't need me to direct them too heavily. So I worked with Kezia Burrows and Anthony [Howell], who both worked on Alien as well. I'd met them on a mo-cap shoot six years ago or whatever it was, and got in touch with them and said 'do you wanna help out on this new project?' and they were really up for it."
"And it was really good, like Anthony I'd written with him in mind, because his voice is perfect and he's incredible, does everything like the one-take wonder. So it was really easy to work with Anthony, he'd just done his thing so well. Whereas with Emma it was this entirely new thing, and so working with Kez, having known her really well, it made it much easier. She could kind of feed into that and change dialogue on the fly and we'd kind of work over stuff and, yeah, that made a huge difference, working with someone you already knew and could trust that way. And then I took on a role as Jim, and Kez was a huge help in bringing that out of me and making me a bit more confident about it all, and again made it quite fun and interesting to do because we were working together on something. It felt very indie, but productive. We were getting good results out of it, so it was kind of a nice setup."
No Code has always positioned Observation as a thriller rather than as a horror game, which is evident when you jump in and play through it. There's obviously something unnerving about your spaceship being devoid of human life after a mysterious event, but McKellan explained to us that this is more about unnerving the player rather than scaring them, something that can be a tricky balancing act:
"Someone's like 'oh my god, this is terrifying' and we're like 'oh my god, we had no idea'."
"It's interesting because we were really worried when we were putting the first announcement trailer out. We were really clear, we wanted to call it a thriller and not a horror because we didn't feel it was a scary game, we didn't want people to think it was like a Dead Space or an Alien 2, but that it was still full of tension and still full of atmosphere and a little bit of dread and uncertainty, but never like something's gonna jump up and scare you kind of thing. And it was quite a hard balance to get right, and I don't know how right we got it because a lot of people are saying they're terrified when they play it, and we're like 'really? I didn't expect that'. And someone's like 'oh my god, this is terrifying' and we're like 'oh my god, we had no idea'.
"We knew obviously that there's some pretty dark stuff in there and a lot of tension, but we didn't want to have like a really overt score through the game, we wanted to let the environment do a lot of that work, the sound design does a lot of that work, and I think we spent a lot of time trying to make things feel believable, but as the narrative moves along and the story moves along, you get a sense that not everything that's going right is necessarily going right for the right reasons - I think the player takes on a lot of that and starts to think about things a little bit differently. You know, sometimes the sound doesn't really change much, but the feel seems to change and I think it's just your knowledge of the other elements of the game that start to twist your perceptions a little bit."
"But yeah, I mean, building the atmosphere was one of the key pillars right at the start of the game, 'how do we create an environment that feels real and feels believable, feels grounded? Even though it's impossible for anyone to relate to this stuff, how do we make it so?' It's all about trinkets, you know, it's not just about big, high-tech machinery, it's about pens and pencils and patches and cans of Irn Bru. The characters can feel like they should've been there and they felt missing and these people had suddenly vanished and leave everything behind. So that all contributes to it, and it's hard to put a pin on what made the difference. I think it was just a combination of all these factors that ended up with what we had."
"It was kind of weird because we genuinely didn't think it was a scary game, or a particularly tense game. We thought it was more of a thoughtful thriller thing with some real tense moments in it, that had this kind of twist and darkness as the game proceeds, but then we got age ratings back as Mature and 18 and things like that and we were like 'oh god' [laughs] 'We've made a scary game!' It's a hard one to get right, and I'm not sure where we landed on that - I think it depends on the person - but it seems to be effective, which is the main thing, it seems to play nicely in with the story, so we're happy with what came out."
Now that Observation is released though, what's next for No Code? They've pushed boundaries with both Stories Untold and Observation, telling stories in a unique way and testing out ways of delivering narrative, and it seems like this flair for innovation isn't going anywhere anytime soon.
"We honestly don't know," McKellan told us when we asked about plans for the future. "We've got a bunch of different concepts that we've kind of had on the boil for a while, and we're just kind of waiting to see how this game does. We're obviously totally genuinely surprised and delighted about the reviews and reception it's received so far because it's quite an experimental game in a lot of ways and we didn't know what people would think. So we're really glad it's hit home this way and if there's an appetite for more like this, we'll definitely be doing more like it. I think we'll know more in the next couple of weeks and months, where to take things, but we've definitely got big ideas and we just need to scope out what's realistic and what's gonna get people excited."
You can read our Observation review right here to get our thoughts on how No Code's concept turned out, and if this is anything to go by then they're certainly worth keeping an eye on in the future, because you never know what kind of weird and wonderful ideas they'll throw our way now that SAM's journey is over... or is it?
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