Imagine a world where human augmentation is the norm. Lost limbs can be replaced with better ones, and even our brains can be enhanced with computer chips. The government supplies everything: entertainment, housing, and health care. Even social status is carefully arranged through an application system. Observer is a spiritual successor to George Orwell’s 1984, infused with the cyberpunk legacy of films such as Blade Runner and The Lawnmower Man. But, Observer is more than a run-of-the-mill dystopian fiction. The depth and breathless madness that inhabits sections of the story, and the beauty and detail of both the visuals and the lives of the people you meet make Observer a deep dive into a virtual dream that hits very concrete notes within the human experience.
Observer takes place in a futuristic Krakow, Poland after a cyber plague killed thousands of augmented humans, followed by a war that took out all of the world’s former superpowers. You play as Daniel Lazarski, an Observer for Chiron, the leading manufacturer of basically all technology within the post-war governance of the Fifth Polish Republic. It is Lazarski’s job to hack into the minds of Krakow’s citizens in order to solve crimes at the behest of his employer. For this very purpose, you are summoned to the Class C district of the city, into a rundown apartment building full of people who assuage their misery through drug or hologram addiction.
Though the pacing begins deceptively slow, Observer quickly starts drawing you into a very detailed world. During your investigation, you can speak with residents of the Class C apartments, bits of their faces displayed on old and broken screens mounted to their doors. You encounter desperate tenants deprived of their addiction now that their holographic projector is down, and they find themselves alone in their dingy apartment. You meet terrified occupants concerned the government might soon be at their door, members of a religious order outspokenly against augmentation who have a sense of calm about the whole thing, and angry parents trying to deal with their kids. The writing is so genuine that even reading the emails of the deceased you come across during your investigation, or looking through their web history, brings that person to life in a surprisingly intimate way that makes the apartment building feel like a whole world on it’s own, rather than a decaying and forgotten corner of Krakow.
Lazarski has several tools to assist in his investigations, including a form of augmented reality that allows him to scan DNA, evaluate wounds, and analyze tech including body implants found on victims. But, the more astounding, beautiful and often anxiety inducing elements of Observer are when Lazarski uses his “Dream Eater” augmentation. This allows him to observe people’s memories. But, these aren’t your average recollections. The Dream Eater digs into the person’s psyche, leading Lazarski through a mad, often nightmarish progressions of visions imprinted by the victim’s emotions.
These memory hacking sequences use a strong sense of the uncanny to distort otherwise normal circumstances into something truly alien and otherworldly. Human figures appear before you, going through the motions of work, or dancing at a party, but the movement is wrong. Their motions are too fast, too broken, and the figures themselves are stiff and fractured like a holographic image emitted from a broken machine. Hallways, office buildings, and homesteads appear as dark and twisted monstrosities. Strange astral visions of showers floating on a floor that builds around your feet as eerie echoes of the past sound around you. Even for survival horror fans, of which I am one, I found these sections made me nervous. By the end I felt as if I had come out of an ordeal. I found myself wondering how Lazarski could possibly endure experiencing these events firsthand as if he were there. I was safely shielded by my TV screen and still felt affected in a way no monster hiding around a corner waiting to pop out could induce.
Though most of Observer is true to its name, there are a couple of sequences where Lazarski will have to play a little game of cat and mouse. These sequences serve to ground Lazarski into the virtual and augmented experiences in a very visceral way. Though they are few, it is enough to keep the feeling of danger alive and well. From the onset, Lazarski will hear unsettling sounds, booms, voices and other off putting audio that makes you wonder just how safe you are, despite Lazarski’s cool demeanor. Observer’s real horror lies mostly in the uncanny and unpleasant, but these few sequences are well placed and do not last long enough to interrupt the game’s natural pace.
The visuals in Observer are both bleak and beautiful. The apartment building is full of broken holographic displays, live wires freely spilling sparks, pigeons roaming the hallways like vermin, and numerous hints that the janitor doesn’t have the funds or even desire to keep the building and it’s utilities in even livable conditions. At the same time, neon lights from signs, apartment doors highlighted with blue holographic lines, and the way Lazarski’s vision looks as if you are viewing the world through an aging computer screen that is slowly becoming more pixelated make this world all the more convincing. Every detail draws you in.
The longer you spend with Observer, the more you want to dig deeper into the mystery. Even beyond that, you want to know more about the lives of the people in Class C district. The world in Observer is well thought out and it shows. For example, one email I came across revealed how some people in district C had developed an underground pigeon trade. I guess the birds running around the building weren’t just for looks. As you learn about the lives of the people and victims you come across, live out their fears, anxieties, and mistakes, you will begin to feel drawn in much like Lazarski with his Dream Eater.