If cyberpunk games aren’t about to , at least they’re becoming much more cyber. Bloober Team is going for it, applying their first-person horror chops to the grotesque, dim dystopia of Observer, a sci-fi venture that casts the player as a hardboiled super cop.
I had a chance to play a short, unreleased demo to see how it’s shaping up, and Observer is still holding onto the haunted house tricks Bloober learned in , but breaking up those tiring sequences with contemplative detective work. It’s a great mix of horror showboating and storytelling, but I can’t see it working unless the final game strikes a good balance between substance and style.
I’m a hardboiled cyberpunk cop with a thick Eastern European accent. Without even seeing my character’s own face, I feel the wrinkles and grit on the guy. I get the impression he’s done things a civic adjudicator shouldn’t. And now we're off to where else but some decrepit apartments to disrupt the drug trade.
There’s blood all over the hallway floor, and the neighbors aren’t any help. One couple told me to screw off and the other guy just spewed useless anger. He paints the people I’m looking for as asinine junkies, which may be true, but the guy is clearly pissed off he has to live next to addicts and dealers—all empathy gone. Fair enough, but I wheel back his assertions. If anyone is doing drugs here, they have their reasons.
Observer is set in 2084 Poland, years after a digital plague killed thousands of augmented people and sent the region (or world, it’s unclear) spiraling into war. A corporation came out on top, and capitalism ran its worst possible course, quickly. It’s typical cyberpunk fare, but we’ve yet to see what Poland looks like under a dark neon glow. Either way, the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer. Therefore, drugs.
The Observer job title isn’t just for style. The dude’s equipped with some special eyes—biometric and electromagnetic vision modes highlight organic and electronic objects in the environment. Think of them as natural exposition tools: scan an ID card with the electromagnetic vision for a full profile on the person, or a phone to find out what company manufactured it and who it belongs to.
Using my bio vision, I analyze the blood spatter on the floor and determine it belongs to a caucasian male with a B+ blood type who’d been using a controlled substance called Feed. Drugs are a motif it seems. They’re bad, probably. In attempt to find out if they are, in fact, bad, I part a curtain and it becomes pretty obvious where the blood came from.
A man lies in front of a visqueen coated tub filled with blood. A gash arcs across his face, spilling the stuff. He’s clearly concussed and confused—speaking to him is impossible. After some futile attempts to get answers, my character asks for “consent” before ramming a claw attached to a cable into the back of the man’s skull. What follows is glitchy montage of hall crawls much more reminiscent of Layers of Fear. I’ve just hacked the guy’s brain, and it’s weird.
I wander through halls that disappear before I reach the end, birds fill the screen on occasion, and at one point I hear thunderous footsteps and see a huge figure pass by a doorway. Meanwhile, I’m flitting through space and time—the space and time of this dying man’s memories—as I try to figure out what happened to him. It’s a bit hard to parse, but in the full game I might have more information to lean on. One room keeps duplicating itself into the next room whenever I try to leave, until I figure out that looking at the TV clues me into a which doorway I should be using. It’s a light, natural puzzle that taps into exactly what I want to do in a game like this: observe. Hey, that’s the name of the g—
The bizarre sequence is supported by digital artifacting effects, compressed sound, and actively changing level design to make what is typically saved for a prerendered cutscene play out in the actual game. It’s seriously impressive stuff, continually surprising in its variety and smooth in the delivery.
Sometimes it leaned a bit too hard into the Layers of Fear’s ‘turn around, and boo, the locked door is now a hallway’ bag of tricks, but Observer still has the opportunity to use cliches as clever storytelling devices that clue us into who we’re plugged into.
Without the context necessary to really know the character I invaded in the demo, it’s difficult to say whether or not what I saw was meaningful or just for show. The scenes flew by so quickly, it was hard to get a grip on whose head I was in. I suppose subtlety is difficult in a demo and a whiteboard listing out his favorite food, color, and TV show would come off as a bit forced.
But the framework for Observer is much more promising than Layers of Fear’s nonstop jumpscare cliche train. The slow drip detective scenes build out a grimy and hopelessly corrupt cyberpunk setting, and the surreal head invasion sections feel more natural as a fragmented horror house. I’m pretty sure a concussed junkie’s consciousness wouldn’t be Disneyland. It also implies Observer could be a far more diverse experience than Layers of Fear. If we’re jacking in to multiple people, then, like Psychonauts, there’s good opportunity to explore the psyche of unique characters and build out the world along the way.
Sure, some could be straight up cyberpunk haunted houses, but others could be more in-depth puzzle exploration sequences. And the tone doesn’t have to stay bleak. Hopefully, we’re not only going to hop into the minds of troubled, concussed folks. Maybe Observer could afford a moment or two to be light and silly. Make those dark moments stand out.
We’ll know how dark Observer gets when it releases sometime this summer.