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Opinion: Observation's AI is a brilliant narrative device

"There are so many ways to describe the brilliance of No Code's_ Observation_, but the strangest may be the most apposite: it turns everything inside out."

Katherine Cross

June 7, 2019

7 Min Read

Spoilers ahead.

I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

--HAL 9000

There are so many ways to describe the brilliance of No Code’s Observation, but the strangest may be the most apposite: it turns everything inside out. Observation’s inversions are masterstrokes and they all center around the game’s heart and soul, your character SAM, the AI for the game’s titular international space station.

A strange “incident” befalls the station, damaging it and robbing it of power. One astronaut, the station’s doctor, Emma Fisher, is alive and trying to bring you back online to help her find out what’s happened. One horrifying fact becomes immediately apparent: you’re now in the orbit of Saturn. Observation turns Saturn’s hexagonal polar storm (yes, it really exists) into a beautiful motif that ties the game together. But the major chord is SAM.

I’m Afraid I Can Do That

First we must deal with the obvious. The game’s developers consciously took inspiration from 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to a gas giant having totemic status in the story, an onboard AI defined by what its lidless eyes can see, and the use of an obsidian monolith to represent an unfathomable alien intelligence. But No Code repays its debt with interest, using Clarke’s classic ingredients to tell a new story that only a video game could tell in quite this way (more on that later).

One of the ways in which No Code does this is by blessedly upending all the usual cliches about AI becoming superintelligent serial killers. SAM is, in the end, one of the good guys. And yet the game manages to give us a magnificent set piece of a scene where you get to be the AI turning the station’s systems on a hapless astronaut in order to murder him.

The difference here is that the game frames this as morally justified and a horrible necessity of an ugly situation. There’s an almost insouciant boldness in this, taking this cliche and inverting its ethics, but it pays off. It’s emotional, satisfying, and necessary. And it was quite a feeling to actually be the AI doing this.

That is, after all, the game’s key selling point: in other games, you’d play Emma. In this adventure game you instead play the AI as the nosey problem solver. But the joy of this game goes deeper than just being able to be HAL 9000, fun as it is. Not only is it spectacularly realized with a beautiful UI, but this gimmick’s centrality was fully utilised by the developers to do something amazing with the story. Something I think deserves a Nebula Award at the very least.

Yes, I’ll Dream

Some reviewers suggested that the game didn’t deliver on exploring AI consciousness, much less deep questions about “what it means to be human.” But I’d argue that Observation did a far better job with representing an AI’s dawning sapience than any of us could’ve predicted. How? With the very thing that makes Observation special: the fact that you are playing the AI.

Throughout the game I found myself thinking that a real AI or virtual assistant would perform all these tasks near instantaneously. My futzing around would be agonizingly slow to my user, sluggish to the point of uselessness. Even quick tasks like looking up crew life support information took several painful seconds to execute. A true AI would be able to reply straight away. And yet, I realized, this is the point.

SAM has already been changed by the entity on the station. It is precisely at that point, “the incident,” that the player takes control of SAM. Our very human frailties and strengths come to infuse his every action: curiosity, indecision, deliberation. Thus, everything you do in Observation expresses this core fact about the character. What would be painfully unrealistic in any other portrayal of a virtual assistant becomes marvellous characterization in Observation.

The game doesn’t dwell on the implications or meaning of SAM’s dawning sapience--though the hints that are there are breathtaking examples of a little going a long way--because you are his dawning sapience, with all its clumsiness.

The Greatest Enthusiasm and Confidence in the Mission

This also explains something that almost became a complaint about the game: its relative lack of characterization.

In Fullbright’s magnificent Tacoma the characters are so real you come away deeply invested in their lives, all but praying that they’re still alive as you reach the game’s climax. Here, I felt next to nothing for every death I witnessed, except inasmuch as it had an effect on Emma.

But consider the importance of perspective-taking in Observation. You are, rigorously and completely, this AI. Your memory was severely damaged by the incident, so SAM, like the player, comes in knowing very little. Dr. Emma Fisher is his primary point of contact for the entire journey. As SAM’s consciousness develops, you cathect with her. You come to feel for her; she is literally your first experience of empathy, a feeling SAM is clearly struggling with. It certainly doesn’t help that the entity is all but commanding SAM to “bring her.”

The effect of this is that your view of the rest of the crew can only ever be peripheral at best. It makes sense that you’d only mourn their loss second-hand, through Emma, who is your first point-of-reference for human fellow-feeling. It makes sense that your nosey poking around the crew’s effects and audiologs are bent towards finding out what happened on the station, because it’s what Emma needs to survive. SAM’s most poignant flashes of consciousness are always related to Emma; he tries to reassure her, he asks if she’s okay.

What could be a limitation, then, is a stunning narrative strength; a triumphal conversion of absence into presence. That effect could still be achieved with meatier characterization of the crew, however, so it doesn’t completely excuse the lack of it. Plenty of other games prove how much can be done with precious little, and the few logs and documents you observe here simply don’t do enough. At least it fits the world in an enriching way.

Where Observation really falls down is the last few seconds of its ending, but that’s a story for another day.

The Pod Bay Doors are Open

As I’ve said many times before, I’m not one of those critics who scorns games that “should’ve been a movie” or somesuch. If you want to make a game, make a game. Learn, practice, and spread some joy along the way. Those games have just as much right to exist as anything else, regardless of how we critics endlessly carp about the true meaning of “interactivity” or what-have-you.

But Observation is one of those titles that really could only be a game. Expressing SAM’s halting and awkward awakening by using a human player is an effect, an experience, you simply couldn’t replicate in another medium. It perfectly demonstrates the specific form of interactivity that prevails in video games as a medium. While all art is interactive, not all art can do this specific thing, hit these specific notes of experience and expression. Like some forms of modern art that reach their highest expression through the viewer/participant, this is a game that really, truly needs a player.

In the end, I felt like I knew SAM because I had to be him. That manifested in dozens of small ways, from feeling apologetic about not being able to complete a task for Emma to the limited angle of vision I had on all the other characters.

Its narrative, though atypical, is a masterclass in storytelling, as powerful as it is innovative. Observation easily stands among the impressive ranks of games involving the exploration of empty space stations with enigmatic AI, Event[0] and Tacoma among them. Observation gets on you and in you like the beguiling entity that looms over the story--and I don’t think I’ll ever wash it off. Nor do I want to.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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