Significant spoilers for Observation follow
Contrary to the connoisseurs, I actually really liked the movie 2010: The Year We Make Contact. The hotly anticipated sequel to 2001, it stunned critics and fans alike who yearned for a repeat of Kubrick’s enigmatic and magical set-pieces. It was, instead, a traditional workmanlike sci-fi thriller with no postmodern mystery about it, more Star Wars than 2001. But, for what it was, it worked brilliantly. Each film inhabited its idiom from start to finish, ensuring each had an ending that was satisfying (or at least, appropriate) to its style. 2001 was mysterious and wide open to interpretation, 2010’s ending was a clear and satisfying conclusion to its straightforward plot. One leaves the viewer to imagine, the other tells the viewer what’s happening.
Both are valid, the slapfighting of critics and purists aside, but they each have to crown the appropriate kind of narrative in order to really be effective.
If I had to pin down why No Code’s Observation lost me with its ending, it’s because it told a 2001 style story and gave us a 2010 style ending.
It really does come down to the last ten seconds of the game. It was surprisingly efficient in how it undermined the sense of mystery that gave the game so much of its chilling tension. Had the enigma been preserved, the game would have entirely steered clear of a major sci-fi cliché that was as boring as it was predictable: the evil alien/evil AI trope.
Again: there’s nothing inherently wrong with these tropes but they’re most effective in a more straightforward, pulpy story. As the solution to a sequence of bizarre and mysterious hints and puzzles, it disappoints.
The hexagon monoliths of Saturn wanted to assimilate the Earthlings all along, it seems. That’s what is thuddingly implied by the last few seconds of Observation’s ending, where the synthesized Emma/SAM appear to be back on Earth, a park bench and footpath in the middle distance. They then touch the ground, an inky corruption redolent of the gunk on the space station spreads out from their hand and the words “BRING THEM” flash before Emma/SAM’s eyes in the manner of SAM’s UI.
The intimation of something inexplicably sinister is far more compelling than the confirmation of it. The filth on the Observation station, the fact that SAM keeps seeing the words “BRING HER” in reference to Emma, the fact that the Saturnian storm appears to kill one of her crewmates, all suggest something is very, very wrong. But in the manner of great sci-fi, its precise details are not clear. At least, not until the end. While much is still obscured, we see enough to confirm the malevolence of the aliens and their intent to alter humanity and Earth in ways that are not exactly congenial. The inky goo, initially ambiguous in its potential, is confirmed as something vile—turning a pastoral park into a tentacly nightmare.
The visual language of the filth implies something untoward, yes. But, if left ambiguous, it becomes more alien. We don’t know what it is or what it means, and its apparent vileness could just as easily be a misunderstanding. The symbolism in the ending confirms, however, that it is Very Bad in a way that was predictable: ‘Oh, the obvious meaning is, indeed, the answer.’
Observation is such a strong game that the journey to that ending is still entirely worth it, of course. Its design, gameplay, and exquisite sense of expression are a ludic feast. But it also offers a rare example of how crucial mere seconds can be in storytelling. Images speak in a language nearly as clear as the written/spoken word, and enough of them put together have the potential to spell out something you didn’t intend.
Observation’s gameplay thrives on the sense of weirdness. There are memorably terrifying moments that achieve a perfect synthesis of video game and film. The cutscene where the camera ever-so-slowly pulls back to reveal, in almost cosmic silence, several Observation space stations closing in on Saturn is bone-chilling horror of the most mature sort. No jump scares, gore, or other Obviously Bad Things, just terrifying implications amid an inexplicable and memorable visual. In such moments the camera becomes a picture frame.
That’s the tone that made Observation memorable. And had it ended ten seconds earlier, it would’ve been perfect.
I think in the world of video gaming there is still a bit of uneasiness about this sort of thing, the fear that the average player (whoever that is) will not be satisfied with anything less than clear answers to all their narrative questions. In a game like Observation, where there is no levelling up, no upgrades to get, no romance to win, no big bosses to defeat, the reward is the story’s resolution, yes. This can create a pressure on game writers and narrative designers to tie everything off neatly at the end.
There’s something about Observation’s ending that feels like a compromise in this regard. There are, after all, still many unanswered questions: what are the aliens called? What will happen to Earth? What’s really in the filth? Why was Emma summoned specifically? But by giving everything a clear moral valence, Observation still reveals far too much. What was once namelessly menacing but potentially beyond our mere human understanding becomes immediately and simply intelligible as a Bad Guy. Simply put, that was not the kind of game Observation was up until that moment.
While the outcry about it was a staggering display of player entitlement that led to many low moments for fandom, Mass Effect 3’s original ending had the inverse problem. A pulpy space opera culminated with a 2001 space baby-style ending. What the game needed—and what it ultimately got—was the more traditional ending that provided objective answers to plot-critical questions. In the end, ME3’s patched-in compromise was an effective one; it preserved certain mysterious elements, giving them a culminating feel, while still tying off the main narrative threads.
Observation, however, doesn’t quite work with such a compromise. The build-up to an ending that reveals the aliens to be invading bad guys cheapens the beautiful art that came before.
Sometimes you do just need to trust the player to make their own meaning of your world.