Observer (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Observer (2017)

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Observer is as much a state of being as it is the title of Bloober Team's follow-up to the excellent Layers of Fear.  There are choices to make as the player character Daniel Lazarski (Rutger Hauer) investigates an apartment complex trying to find his son.  The choices fall into a disappointing binary, usually split between misery or death, and whatever you choose in Observer's unfolding story bears little weight on Lazarski's investigation.

At least, not directly.

Whatever choices I made as Observer trudged forward shared a similar pessimistic point of view that our continued blending of technology into our biological and sociological structures will break down barriers between one person to the next.  Some might welcome this destruction of borders, enticed by the thought of becoming one collective consciousness.  The truth is more likely found in the nervous voices and paranoid glances coming from the video screens that serve as doorbells to each apartment.  Everyone wants to keep their privacy, their borders, up as a bulwark from the unfathomable mass of humanity just outside their doors.  So Lazarski observes, listens, chats, and watches some more as people sink back behind their borders or go insane trying to confront that which can't be controlled.I'm not a tech pessimist, but it's hard for me to keep hope alive when Bloober Team's created an engrossing world for Lazarski to observe.  You might read, as I did, that Observer is like a blend of the aesthetics of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and David Cronenberg's Videodrome.  That's hard for me to argue with since Hauer - one of the stars of Blade Runner - lends his ragged voice to Lazarski, the weather is always rainy, and flesh stretches beyond its breaking point to offer flimsy cover over the robotics humans integrate into their bodies.  The comparison's not wrong, but it's more illuminating and true to Observer to consider two other science fiction classics - Strange Days and Tetsuo: The Iron Man.

If you're unaware, Strange Days focused on tensions in Los Angeles between a blooming drug industry that shares experiences alongside typical highs.  The user jacks into a device called a SQUID, and gets to live out someone else's life during the SQUID's run-time.  Tetsuo: The Iron Man is more horror, watching a hapless and bland businessman deal with the metal slowly overtaking his body after accidentally hitting a metal fetishist with his car.  The best parts of Observer blend these two experiences as Lazarski slowly loses himself by hacking into the brains of humans on the threshold of death, or recently deceased, as screens grow exponentially to stare down Lazarski or taunt whatever memories he is currently haunting.This is where Bloober Team is at its best.  If Layers of Fear toyed with perception by using an unreliable narrator afflicted with schizophrenia, Observer questions whether anything in an advanced society can be taken at face value when human experience can be shared from one person to the next, and Bloober Team does its best to bring that idea for the forefront with such potency it spills outside the game.  The investigations were almost overwhelming on my Alienware laptop and controller as Bloober Team shifted external colors to reflect Lazarski's shifting perception.  The offscreen bits were a nice bit of immersive flavor, mimicking the onscreen insanity of Lazarski's vision becoming consumed with the greys and reds of his investigative vision as overwhelming whining and heartbeats pumped into my headphones.  I'm not as keen to the gameplay application of each mode of vision which basically just highlights different things to point at so Lazarski will say something.

Considering Layers of Fear's primary mode of progress was to move forward this didn't bother me so much, particularly when "moving forward" meant launching into some disturbing mental spaces.  Observer also plays with the unreliable nature of memory in these spaces, where the people who made an impression appear mostly intact while the others going about their lives look like half-formed digital shadows.  This isn't too far off from physical "reality" as Lazarski's only direct human companionship comes from the overseer of the apartment building who was rebuilt after a war only to lose fragments of himself and appear as a robotic zombie to his living family.  In these observations Bloober Team presents a compelling criticism of technological advances as they serve as a form of oppression, something last year's Deus Ex: Mankind Divided failed to do by positioning technological integration as a means to prejudice but making the player character a superhuman tech savant.Bloober Team's compassion in watching this oppression is what fills the corners of the apartment complex.  I combed through the e-mails of different people, seeing a similar tune play out over multiple stories as the tech needed for survival comes with costs the lower-income classes are unable to earn.  It's also seen in the structure of the apartment, where screens with advertisements and computers litter the walls, but the building itself is decaying and the basic utilities for survival are crumbling away.  Food, water, shelter, and care - no matter the advances in technology - will always find itself in comfortable access to the rich while the poor struggle to be seen or heard.

Thankfully, so much of Observer encourages this mode of investigation with these details as some of the gameplay shifts are detrimental to the experience.  As I progressed further into the story, Lazarski starts hacking into brains that produce lumbering masses of monstrous technology that I had to hide from.  These stealth sections are terrible, least of which because the instant game over of discovery was poorly explained prior to their start, and more so because they add an unnecessary level of tension to a video game experience that suddenly requires skill not needed elsewhere.  I did dig the design of these monsters, reminding me most of Tetsuo: The Iron Man, with their metallic phallic bodies coming to a head of light.Observer isn't as fresh as Layers of Fear, and the inclusion of stealth sections along with the binary choices are disappointing conventional steps backward.  But Bloober Team's focus on compassion in their stories fill the apartment complex and memories with enough detail to keep me in Observer's thrall.  After all, any game that understands the dehumanizing effect of working in a cubicle is one that remains interested in showing compassion to all instead of a few.  The forces behind technological progress doesn't care if you're in a cubicle or a poor apartment complex, you're just one more body needed to make someone else's future.

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Posted by Andrew

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