How AI thriller Observation is the spiritual successor to Alien: Isolation

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Observation is an upcoming sci-fi thriller from No Code, the team behind horror anthology Stories Untold. In it you play as SAM, an orbital space station's advanced artificial intelligence that has suddenly become self-aware. Something has gone horribly wrong on the station, leaving it drifting near Saturn, and it's up to you to help survivor Dr. Emma Fisher escape to safety—a job made complicated by the fact that a sinister presence is interfering with your computer brain, and doesn't seem to have Fisher's best interests at heart.

The game is viewed through cameras that litter the station, which you can remotely control. These are SAM's eyes and ears, and through these he can interact with stuff to help (and maybe, later, even hinder) Fisher. You can open and close airlocks, activate devices, read data on laptops, and more. You'll solve intricate puzzles via a series of complicated computer interfaces, talk to Fisher and respond to her commands, and hopefully find a way to rescue her. But the ominous phrase BRING HER keeps appearing on your glitchy interface, suggesting some kind of manipulation from an outside force.

While Observation is not at all like Alien: Isolation mechanically, both games have a lot in common. A future setting where some magical technology won't save you; a general feeling of dread and claustrophobia; beautifully emulated VHS and video distortion; and a distinctive '70s sci-fi atmosphere, albeit with a near-future setting. And this is no coincidence: many of the people who've worked on Observation also worked on Alien: Isolation. And with no proper Isolation sequel planned, this might be the closest we'll get.

Last month I visited No Code's studio in my hometown of Glasgow, Scotland to play an early demo of the game and talk to its creative director, Jon McKellan, about what inspired his team, its spiritual connection to Alien: Isolation, and what it has in store for us when it's released later this year.

PC Gamer: Alien: Isolation had the xenomorph, but the threat in Observation seems less overt. How do you build tension in a game like this?

Jon McKellan: It's tricky, because there's no clear antagonist. The story is more about what you're doing. When it comes to building tension, music and lighting have huge parts to play, of course. But we said right from the start that we didn't want this to be a straight up horror game where you're terrified all the time, because that doesn't lend itself to deeper thinking. It's a surface level fear, worrying about whether you're going to get eaten or whatever.

Isolation was this constant chase, and when that's going on you don't really get a chance to think about anything deep or existential; it's more about the immediate dread of wondering if you're going to die. But here we're trying to do something a bit different and plant these thoughts in the back of your mind. In some cases you'll be forced to do something you're not entirely comfortable with. You don't know what the meaning of what you're doing is, but it's unsettling enough to make you feel like it's a bad thing.

At the end of my demo I was communicating in a bizarre language with some otherworldly presence, and that was pretty unnerving...

It's menacing. You don't know what this thing is, what it's saying, or what you're saying back to it. You don't know anything about it, yet you're compelled to communicate. We looked at stuff like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where they communicate with the alien craft using music. They don't know what they're saying, and it's concepts like this that really build the tension in Observation, rather than a minute to minute rise and fall. It's a plot-driven tension, which is harder to do. But we do play with that a bit, and some sections in the game are creepy in a more traditional way. As Stories Untold hopefully proved, we're not afraid to jump genre, switch gears, and take you by surprise.

Despite telling a continuous story, will Observation have something of the anthology feel of Stories Untold?

Observation actually started off as episodic, with a similar setup to Stories Untold. It wasn't going to be totally individual stories, but five distinct sections of an experience. But then the story developed to a point where it was hard to fit it into five chunks, and we wanted to do something more full-length. Internally we still refer to each section of the game as an episode, but they're more like acts, really. The first act is about learning what it's like to be an AI, be SAM. The second is more about exploration and getting to know yourself. So there is some of that anthology feel. Certain acts will lean more heavily into certain mechanics to suit that part of the story, but overall it'll be pretty seamless.

You used the word existential earlier—does Observation have a similar tone to those pessimistic sci-fi films from the 1970s?

It's not pessimistic. It's more about questioning what things mean, and the game has, in some ways, more in common with optimistic sci-fi such as Close Encounters or Contact. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a big inspiration, of course, but we're looking at the evolution of Dave Bowman from another angle. What's actually happening there? Who is driving that, and why? We're looking at sci-fi from the '60s and '70s, but we're evaluating it in a different way.

I love 2001 because, in the film at least, nothing is spelled out. It's enigmatic. Is this something you want to bring to Observation?

We talk a lot about the justification for things happening in the game. If something is supposed to be beyond your comprehension, but then we explain it, it no longer has any power. So we're writing things that almost don't make sense, at least on the surface. But it's not a cop out, or a way to let anything go. The characters will acknowledge that certain things don't make sense, so we are pulling it into the story rather than just doing things for the sake of it.

There are answers, and the main answers will come. I hope people will feel satisfied by the end and feel like they've gotten something out of the story. But there's a much deeper level to it, and so much of those answers will be open to interpretation. There will still be things to question. We've built a narrative that encourages you to think about what things mean, and there are things that are never answered explicitly, but have been thought about.

Is the entire game viewed through the lens of SAM?

We haven't shown this yet, but the story actually cross-cuts with another narrative back on Earth, in Houston. The mission controllers are having a kind of tribunal about what went wrong on the station. So everything you're seeing when you're playing the game is past tense, and is video being viewed by these people. It's kind of like found footage in space, and these characters will have their own theories about what things mean, which should give players a few starting points for figuring the story out.

I love shows like Lost that are heavy on mystery and abstract sequences, and I love discussing that stuff and theorising with people. But singleplayer games are more insular, and you don't often discuss them around the watercooler. So the characters in the tribunal kind of play that role. They'll discuss the footage they've just seen, and specialists will propose theories about it.

You've gone for a recognisable near future setting, rather than something in the far flung future. What was the thinking behind this?

We wanted it to feel grounded, which I know sounds stupid in a game where you're floating around in zero gravity. In more futuristic sci-fi you have holograms and other fancy technology that's basically magic, which lets you get away with murder, and lowers the stakes. So we used the International Space Station as a point of reference, because most people are familiar with it.

And when you see Saturn, it's not like EVE Online or something. There aren't colourful nebulas everywhere. It's more like it is in reality: this big, ominous ball hanging in blackness. It's not beautified or dressed up. It's stark. And these details take getting used to a weird futuristic environment out of the equation, so you're left to focus on the story. The ISS is still fairly lo-fi. Some of the laptops are still running Windows XP. And we play with that a bit.

You start in the Euro American Space Agency arm of the station. This looks very similar to the American side of the ISS. But later you move into other arms, which are more themed on the Chinese and Russian sections. So the aesthetic of each arm does change quite a bit. It's all contemporary, so we researched the real thing rather than inventing all new stuff.

In this universe, are AI purely functional, or is it common for them to have the same apparent level of intelligence as SAM?

AI is not that advanced in our universe, and SAM is the first to exhibit any kind of self-awareness. Without going into the story too much, SAM is the first of his kind, driven by a quantum supercomputer. And that starts to play into the story as you go deeper into why this is happening to you and not some other computer intelligence. Our universe is set about seven years from now and not much has changed in terms of technology. It's all based on contemporary tech, whereas if the game was set 10-20 years from now we'd have to design new versions of everything, and we didn't want to get caught up in all that.

The puzzles I played were pretty abstract and difficult, but satisfying to solve. What's your philosophy when it comes to puzzle design?

It's the No Code way, isn't it? [laughs] We just drop you in, and working out how the puzzle works is the actual puzzle. A puzzle can be hard to solve, like in The Witness. You know how it works—you have to get the line from here to here—but you can still struggle with it. But with our method of puzzle design, inputting the solution is usually quite straightforward. It's working out what the puzzle is in the first place that's challenging. We're putting these weird computer interfaces in front of people and saying: make it do this.

We'll drop you in a room with all this stuff around you, and you'll know what to do narratively. The prompt will be something like: get the reactor online. But you then have to work out the steps you have to take to actually do that. Rather than knowing how to do everything, but it's a really complicated puzzle to solve. I prefer that kind of challenge, where the elements are slowly revealed to you. I find that more rewarding. You're not challenged by your manual dexterity or anything like that, it's more about just watching and thinking.

Observation definitely feels like a spiritual successor to Alien: Isolation, but what are some of its direct connections to that game?

Jack Perry and Ranulf Busby were character artists on Alien: Isolation, and they designed all the characters in Observation. Stefano Tsai, who did a lot of the concept work for Sevastopol, is our main concept artist. He designed our station and a lot of the interior props. Basically anything that didn't have a real-world reference, we'd go to Stefano and he'd come up with some crazy geometry. And of course Kezia Burrows and Anthony Howell, our voice actors. Kezia played Amanda Ripley in Isolation and plays Dr. Emma Fisher in Observation, and Anthony played Samuels, who is the voice of SAM here.

I remember seeing Anthony's audition for Alien: Isolation and thinking he was amazing. I had to work with him at some point. There's no processing on his voice at all in Observation: that's how he delivers it, with all the stutters and broken timing. He just does it. When we put together our pitch prototype a few years ago, we had him read a few lines. I told him he's an AI, but he doesn't sound like a robot. And as soon as he read the first line, that was it.

We took a long time to cast Emma. We had a few actors try out for it, but we weren't quite sure what we wanted. Some of them were great, some didn't quite work. Then it was time to do a demo, and we didn't have an actor lined up. I'd kept in touch with Kezia, so I asked if she could record some lines for it at her home recording studio. And when she sent it back, it was perfect.

We have Will Porter as well, who was one of the writers on Isolation. He's contributed some of the background story. We've kept in touch with Gary Napper too, who was a lead designer on Isolation and gave us some feedback. I've tried to hire as many of that team as I can. I like that people have said the trailer has given them Alien: Isolation vibes, because that's my UI style coming through, and Stefano's environments. It's nice people have noticed that.