With a not-so-subtle nod to the sci-fi masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scottish developer No Code this week embarked on its latest adventure with the launch of the brilliant horror game, Observation.
Building on its experience in creating the narrative-driven game Stories Untold and its contributions to Creative Assembly's Alien Isolation, Observation (published by Devolver) puts players in command of an artificial intelligence named S.A.M. As part of a space station, S.A.M. has the task of aiding Dr. Emma Fisher as she tries to regain communication with her crew and find a way back home.
Much in the style of the studio's previous game, players control different parts of the station as S.A.M., from surveillance cameras to door mechanisms, by manipulating systems, and solving small puzzles depending on the situation, acting on behalf of Emma’s requests.
The player as an omnipresent machine
No Code founder and creative director Jon McKellan said there’s definitely part of Stories Untold’s DNA in Observation. “It's the kind of game we like to make -- puzzles that aren't necessarily difficult to solve, but feeling your way around the user interface is part of the puzzle itself," he says.
Observation expands on the groundwork laid by Stories Untold. Observation extends the player’s freedom to be part of conversations, and gives players more room to explore from the get-go. Instead of fixed scenarios, there’s a whole station available, and the space available does nothing but increase over time as the story unlocks new places to take control.
“Observation is still a linear story, but it's a journey through the station, interacting with characters and using systems in more open ways. Instead of using one system at one point in the game, you might have to use it several times, in a few different situations, and learn how and when it might be appropriate,” McKellan says. “These are all tools in the belt now.”
Since players are taking part of the backend of the station as an AI, it was important for No Code to come up with interfaces that didn’t feel too human -- interactions needed to be consistent with how a machine may operate. The mechanics of opening a door might seem simple from the typical player perspective, but S.A.M. handles it differently.
“Originally you just had to look at a door and press X, but that felt way too human -- like you were pressing a button with your finger. But S.A.M. isn't built like that, so instead you first have to 'pair' with the system, the way you would link Bluetooth devices together, and gain a link to that object. Then you can interact,” he explains.
This grants a layer of immersion and intricacy to rather standard interactions, without becoming tedious. McKellan says that there was a lot of iteration involved, and the studio had entire systems come and go during development, trying to find the right balance between actions and storytelling.
Even if there are different characters involved and a central storyline involving this lost crew in space, the focus is all about the station. “It's not a story about what it means to be self-aware, that's been done to death, and instead it's a fresh story about what the self-awareness might mean. As S.A.M. is the station, exploring the interior is essentially exploring yourself.”
Visual design and the choice of a modern setting were also important to help players identify with the environment in a meaningful way. Instead of being in the far future, everything happens only a few years from now.
Ensuring the technology and concepts are real creates a sense a familiarity, which makes the fantastical events that happen more out of place, and ultimately, alarming to the player. It’s worth remembering that part of No Code’s team worked on Alien: Isolation in the past, and while there isn’t a xenomorph roaming the space station this time around, the horror value is present here as well.
In each episode of Stories Untold, players had to learn a new set of rules, and make their way through a unique batch of tools each time. While S.A.M. doesn’t exactly change throughout the game, the UI does. During development, the studio wanted to make it both look and feel as if parts of the station were made by different people. And this came with a challenge around player agency.
An experimental approach to UI
“There's a lot of aspects to the UI design that have deliberately went against the normal rules for a good user experience. It's quite experimental that way, but we wanted to make sure that ship felt like not all systems were part of the AI,” he says.
Consistency was key to accomplishing this without turning the experience overwhelming or confusing.
“One thing we did settle on was a consistent font throughout, as the more different it became, the harder it was for the player to adapt each time," says McKellan. "So there is some consistency through it all, but the systems do feel different from one another in many ways. It was a lot of fun to design.”
Without entering spoiler territory, there are secrets and ideas that crop up in the UI as a result of the story progression, which reinforce unnerving situations for the player.
Almost everything in Observation is viewed through the lens of a camera, giving the game a voyeuristic feel. As McKellan explains, there was a lot involved into making shots look and feel as realistic as possible, while finding the right balance with the visual design of the station.
“It's a combination of procedural shaders, color grading animation and a few other elements," he says. "It's part of my aesthetic I guess, where the analog feel of equipment that isn't quite reliable adds a certain tension to things. We wanted these camera angles to feel believable and not just look like screenshots, so having a layer of visual artifacts really helped blend the station and the point of view together."
"It's a nightmare for video compression, though!" says McKellan. "The 'VHS Shader' in the game is the most expensive post processes we have running. And it's worth every millisecond of frame time.”