If you were to write a list of the core elements within No Code's Observation, it might at first seem like this game does many of the same things we've seen before - there's a spaceship with mysteriously absent crew, a sentient AI, and there are some sinister sci-fi undercurrents that add to the intrigue. Observation, however, does something very different from the offset, which is placing you in the role not of a crew member on board the Observation space station, but instead of the AI itself, SAM (Systems Administration & Maintenance).
The studio - which in the past brought us Stories Untold - instantly separates itself from the competition by making you play as SAM, which involves directing the systems of the ship and taking orders from crew member Emma Fisher, among others. At the start of the game you're thrown into a disaster scenario as an event befalls your ship, and it's up to you to find out what has just happened, how it affected the rest of the crew, and what needs to be done next.
Observation starts rather simply in that you move from room to room, each of which has several cameras to control, and you point at things like laptops and hatch panels to control them, linking your system to each. Sometimes it's not as straightforward as that though, since you'll need to find schematics to link yourself to these machines, since a lot of your memory was lost in the starting incident of the game.
As the game goes on though you gain access to a floating orb that you can use to physically explore the ship, escaping the confines of the fixed cameras and even giving you the ability to go outside of the ship. The game is linear, so you won't be exploring the whole ship at once, but the orb does give you a chance to find hidden secrets like audio logs and documents on laptops, which fleshes out your understanding of the crew and their mission.
Observation is thoroughly original in its concept and feels like its own product, but we couldn't help but be reminded of other classics like Alien (of course) and the Doctor Who episode The Impossible Planet.
That's mostly because of the thoroughly rich atmosphere No Code offers here, which is the standout point of the game. It's described as a thriller, but much like Gone Home there's an underlying and inescapable sense of dread since you don't know what's happened to your crew and the explanation for the mysterious events on the ship. It's dripping in tension throughout as you slowly explore the ship, never knowing what's around the corner or what each camera will unveil.
This is helped by excellent audio design, and there's a subtle but effective soundtrack that really adds a sinister layer to proceedings. When things get really dark, so too does the music, and the supernatural noises that come and go can grate on the skin. There's enough silence here as well, which is important for tension when the only thing you can hear is the creak of the camera turning or the boosters on your orb.
Perhaps where Observation falls short is in the moment-to-moment gameplay. Controlling the cameras at the start gives a real sense of immersion when controlling the ship's AI, slowly getting to grips with all the systems and pulling the strings internally, but when you get control of the orb things become a bit fiddly. This is because the orb handles horribly, and it can get very confusing trying to find your bearings in a ship without gravity using an orb that can turn any direction. We got stuck multiple times using the orb both inside and outside the ship because it became very confusing finding our way around the multiple near-identical hallways and modules. Sometimes the solutions are rather outside the box to some of these puzzles too, which means looking around far and wide using this slow and clunky orb.
That said, many of the conundrums you have to solve are rather intriguing, and unlocking them does feel satisfying. These are mostly just a variety of puzzles and button prompts, but they all feel like they have a place within the world No Code has created, rather than simply being puzzles for the sake of it, whether that's finding coordinates to send broadcasts or finding codes to access laptops with important files.
When we were actually playing Observation some of the little niggles regarding slow and clunky gameplay got under our skin a bit, but when all was said and done we looked back on it with positive feelings. It's got a very believable world with a lot of tension and atmosphere lurking within the plot, and it always made us want to push on and unravel its mysteries, even if we were a little apprehensive at what we may find.
What's more is that controlling SAM provided some of the most unique and innovative storytelling mechanics we've seen, without sharing too much about why that is (we don't want to spoil anything). It's something we haven't seen that much, and flips the often-seen concept of sci-fi AI on its head, providing some very interesting opportunities and surprises along the way. It's definitely worth checking out, and it's one for those who like something outside-the-box.