Cyberpunk futures don’t exactly lean towards cheeriness, but Observer wallows in a bleak, overwhelming despair. When that crushing sense of hopelessness isn’t there, it’s replaced by fear as players move through the memories of dying victims and criminals, dealing with a distorted reality that cannot be trusted. It’s not long before the “real” world begins to shift along with those thoughts, taking players through a dizzying technological nightmare filled with overwhelming horrors and dread.
You play as Dan, a neural detective who can hack into minds, working a case as you meander the halls of a claustrophobic, filthy apartment complex. There is nothing glamorous about this cyberpunk future—at least, not here. Here, amongst the poor cast-offs, you catch glimpses of that bright, neon-lit future the rich get to experience through the shimmering ads that periodically spot the walls, but for the most part, you’re buried in dirt, broken tech, and broken people.
Much of this investigation involves using a pair of sensors—one for biological material, the other scanning for technological. Both will sweep the immediate vicinity around you, picking up and highlighting objects you can take a closer look at to learn more about the crime.
Many of these items paint a clear picture of what happened in a given crime scene, as well as hint toward a thread that links them all together, should players take the time to look. Observer does little handholding in these moments, simply expecting the player to be thorough if they wish to understand the story.
Much more information, however, will be gained from hacking into the minds of Observer’s victims. As a neural detective, Dan can hook himself into mind implants of the victims and killers he finds, drawing himself into their memories and wandering around this new reality. These are horrific memories, though, and players will experience fragments of thoughts and moments, shifting from times and places with a jarring speed. People and reality will distort in these memories, breaking down and reforming in shuddering, glitching visions.
This experience offers an aggressive storytelling style, shoving imagery down your throat so fast it can be difficult to keep up. It’s a purposeful style, though, as while it can be disorienting to have things in constant flux and shifting at high speeds, it still paints a pretty clear picture of events players must understand. There is much more to be learned by repeat playthroughs and experiencing the visions again once you know what happens, but you can easily learn the basic story through what you see.
The result is a uniquely horrifying look into someone’s memories. It’s meant to feel like it’s pushing you too hard, as part of Observer’s horror comes from the sickening nature of stealing into someone’s thoughts. Watching someone’s most horrifying memories should be a frightening thing, and the Bloober Team creates that terror in the player through fast-moving, distorting imagery that can turn from loving to frightening to scream inducing in seconds.
We also see some of the excellent, disorienting use of place that the developer put to work in Layers of Fear in Observer. Within the memories of the victims, and before long, the ‘real’ world, you see that place is ever shifting. Turning your back on a hall can result in the whole world changing behind you, creating this frightening sense that you cannot trust reality. It’s not just that a monster may be lurking behind you, but that an entirely new, fearful world may await.
Visions of glitches and broken tech strengthen this sense of reality being unreliable. Visual quirks appear due to the tech that allows Dan to hack into victims, with his scanners sending strange blips or tears across the screen. Lights will shift colors, presences will appear and fade away, and people made of twisted geometry will come surging ahead, only to vanish. These shifts in the setting create a general sense of unease—players aren’t afraid of some monster stalking them, but that existence is broken and out to harm them in some way they cannot perceive. It feels like the world is out to get them.
Not that there aren’t some monsters lurking in the distortion, but they’re honestly Observer’s weakest point. A massive beast is sometimes lumbering around some of the strange landscapes, and you’ll have to weave around it while typically solving a puzzle. They’re not the most challenging sequences, and the beast can be quite simple to avoid, but these moments break up the attention that most players have been paying to the surreal landscapes.
This is a problem when much of your horror comes from upsetting the player through disorientation and the erosion of any faith in concrete reality. Observer typically frightens players because they cannot trust the world around them, and that creates discomfort. They never know when a plain hallway will become something horrifying. This fear forces a laser focus on environment in the player, and Bloober Team excels at finding those moments when the player finally feels safe to turn things on them.
The monster takes the player’s attention away from the environments and gets them looking at this goofy, hulking thing. Not only that, but a game over breaks the spell of suspension of disbelief the game weaves. That tension from environment is tied to feeling like you cannot escape it, and getting a game over from stumbling into a bulky beast reminds the player that they’re in a game. Not that monsters haven’t been used to great effect in Outlast 2 and other horror titles, but it doesn’t play to the game’s strengths, here.
Observer takes place and memories and turns them into frightening things without a single monster in sight. With its grimy world and its reality in shambles, it creates a pervasive dread throughout, dragging the player into realms of terrifying visions that stir up a nameless fear. It’s not the monsters that we fear, but that something lurks inside of our minds that mean to harm us.