What’s worse than dread? What could possibly be more heinous than paranoia dripping down your spine? Doubt. You see, where dread makes you wary, you at least have an idea of what’s coming. In Bloober Team’s Observer, nothing is certain. As Daniel Lazarski (voiced by the late great Rutger Hauer), a member of the Observer police in a dystopian future Krakow, what starts as a simple phone call from his estranged son twists and turns into a web of deceit where not even reality itself can be trusted. Worse than a nightmare, Observer’s world is a horrifying cyber police state from which there is no waking up from and no one to trust.
I’ve always liked Bloober Team’s work. They have an eye for making meaningful horror that isn’t just cheap tricks, but instead carefully woven narratives in gorgeously horrific locales. This does mean their games tend to be light on traditional survival horror gameplay, even by the standards of something like Outlast, but Observer is their exception to that rule. Daniel’s unique status among the state police means he can not only hack into the memories of the recently deceased, but also boasts several augments straight out of Deus Ex, like multi-spectrum analysis and remote computer hacking.
Yet for all that tech, Daniel is confronted with a claustrophobic lockdown he has no control over. He’s trapped inside a decrepit tenement of Class-C citizens all struggling to survive, barred from the rest of society. In every dimly lit hallway, there’s a new story to be told. Maybe they’re recovering drug addicts, won’t get augmented, or just couldn’t keep up with what this new Fifth Polish Republic wanted of them. As Daniel pieces the facts together, interviewing every resident, he has only a glimpse at their eyes and their voice through a computer. Anyone not locked off is either dead or on the verge of dying if Daniel doesn’t intervene.
Even when given the chance to save a life, the circumstances are never clean or simple. Can you justify sacrificing a comatose body to a new host? How do you feel about discussing the ethics of organ farming if the source isn’t even aware of what’s happening while kept alive? Regardless of the choice you make, there’s no vindicating absolution that you made the “right” decision. The deeper you dive into each murder, the harder it becomes to tell fact from fiction, with even Daniel’s stability meds only able to do so much.
That’s the brilliance of Observer. Everything about it is obtuse yet welcoming. Like any great mystery, all the clues linger in view, but it’s up to you to put it all together. Your reward is often a new psychedelic dive into the harrowing memories of a murder victim, confronted with abstract threats at every turn. Crossing a border patrolled by drones in hopes of a better life. Solving an infinite maze with the most minute of alterations to a room. The oppressive, digital imperialist framing lends an Eastern European bleakness that perfectly captures the feeling of being trapped, with no way out, questioning everything.
Glitch art is tricky in any game. Push it too hard and it’ll just look broken. Not enough and it’ll seem fake. Observer tip-toes this line marvelously, making sure you know that your manufactured eyes aren’t as reliable as they used to be. Memories and metaphorical horrors rise and fall around you, your fancy augmented reality perceptions turned against you for brief yet crucial moments. What starts out as a tool becomes just another liability.
While yes, there’s some valid criticism to be raised at the frankly unnecessary stealth sections where Daniel evades a monstrous beast, that’s more a red herring than anything else. The true monster at work is never quite nailed down. Are you the monster? Adam? The denizens of this wretched hive of misery? Even in its final moments, Observer leaves you wondering.
Faced with an impossible choice, no matter the decision, Daniel and his son’s fate are both in your hands. Add the extra terrifying prospect that you can’t see the alternate outcome without playing through the entire game again, and Observer has you pressed to either overcome or give in to your doubt. Neither result is quite what you’d expect, perfect for a game like Observer. To say anything more would spoil one of the best cyberpunk horror stories in years. Do yourself a favor — whether it’s the original 2017 cut or picking up the Redux on the way for next-gen in the coming months, pick up Observer. Plug in, and trust no one.