After releasing Layers of Fear, a dark and twisted psychological horror game, the Polish developer Bloober Team has stepped it up a notch. Layers of Fear is known for its innovative gameplay, warped environments, and tense, stress-inducing atmospheres. Observer has taken all those elements and added an extra dose of fear and intrigue.
The scene is set in Krakow, Poland. The buildings you explore are real except that now, in 2084, they’re old and crumbling. The world you’re thrown into is recuperating from a war. A war brought on by the nanophage—a virus that exclusively attacks cybernetically augmented organisms. Unfortunately for you, and the rest of humanity, the majority of people have enhanced their bodies with technology. Although the war is over, the threat of another nanophage outbreak lurks over everyone’s heads.
In this cybernetic world, you play as Daniel Lazarski, an Observer, a futuristic detective that can interrogate people by hacking into their minds and reliving their memories. When you receive a call from your estranged son Adam, you track his location to a tenant building. This building only houses class C citizens—citizens which are addicted to drugs and holograms and who are forced to live in squalor. You must venture through the confusing and derelict hallways in order to find your son’s apartment. Upon entering the apartment, you find a decapitated body. Without a head, you can only make assumptions about who this is. It could be your son or some unfortunate degenerate. To make matters worse, upon discovering the corpse, a lockdown is triggered. No one can enter or leave the building, including the killer.
To discover the source of the lockdown and determine the identity of the murderer, you must switch between your biotic and EM vision to search for clues in your environment. Your biotic vision highlights any organic clues—like a splatter of blood or strand of hair left behind at the crime scene. In juxtaposition, your EM vision highlights any important electronics, like computer terminals, you can use. Another tool in your arsenal is your ability to perform mind hacks on the occupants, of the building, both living and dead. By doing this, you can relive their tumultuous memories. Along with verbally interrogating the rest of the building’s occupants, these game mechanics make you feel like you’re in an old, gritty detective film, except with more advanced tools at your disposal.
As previously mentioned, the government has taken over after the war and has separated people into classes, with class C citizens receiving the lowest consideration. Everywhere you look, government propaganda is all over the walls. All the while, this game is reminiscent of old crime noir films, rife with cynical attitudes, moral ambiguity, and bleak settings—all depicted in a cruel world. Considering these points, it’s hard not the see the influences of George Orwell’s 1984 and Blade Runner in this game. In fact, the voice actor of Daniel Lazarski is none other than Rutger Hauer, the actor who played Roy Batty, the main antagonist in Blade Runner. Despite its influences, Observer doesn’t feel derivative in any way. So, if you enjoyed these prominent influences, you’ll enjoy Observer for many of the same reasons.
This game has a number of important themes. One of which is the purpose of technology in the lives of mankind. As you explore your surroundings, the environment is riddled with gaudy technology. It’s everywhere you look: pictures and other inanimate objects come to life with neon lights and sounds. Advertisements greet you by bouncing off the walls. It’s a cacophony of visual stimuli that makes you feel estranged. You never see another living face besides the tenant-owner because every door you pass has a digitized peephole through which you can interrogate people.
In this way, the game distances you from humanity and makes you question what society has become. People seem to have stripped their humanity and replaced it with technology. Even drugs aren’t enough anymore; many people have shifted their addictions to holograms. In this dystopian reality these people call home, technology has become their escape.
In my opinion, one the scariest aspect about this game is the mind hacks you perform and the effects they have on you. As you delve further and further into your investigation and literally hack into the minds of criminals and the unstable, the line between reality and memories become hazy. Each time you hack into a person’s mind, you’re forced to relive their memories and even their darkest fears.
When you’re inside someone’s head, there isn’t a straight line to the answers you seek. The inside of every mind is different, and each mind offers weird or fear-inducing memories that have you rushing to get your answers and leave. This begins to take a toll on your mind, so much so that when you walk through a door only to turn around and find a solid wall, you must question if you’re still inside someone’s head or if you’re on the outside. As you’re looking for a mysterious killer, you can’t help to wonder if you’ve caught the nanophage or if you’re simply going insane.
In the end, this is one of those games that you play multiple times in order to explore all the possible endings. These endings seem to be designed to be quite open-ended. But, not open-ended enough to require a sequel. The flexible endings allow enough room for personal interpretation and I think that this fact is what makes this game wonderful and insightful. Although I was left with plenty of questions after finishing the game, it seems even more meaningful when the game leaves you, the observer, to answer these questions on your own.
With a 9/10 on Steam, Observer is a wonderful game from start to finish. It is both fear-instilling and intriguing. So, if you’re looking for a horror game that is visually striking and insightful enough to warrant self-reflection, Observer is a wonderful choice.
Observer is a wonderful game from start to finish. It is both fear-instilling and intriguing. So, if you’re looking for a horror game that is visually striking and insightful enough to warrant self-reflection, Observer is a wonderful choice.