This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Observation casts players as a ship's AI, helping a distressed member of the crew survive while also dealing with your own newly-growing consciousness.
Gamasutra sat down with No Code's Jon McKellan to talk about the intriguing elements of becoming a sentient machine dealing with its new emotions and feelings, the challenges of creation puzzles for a being without a body, and the natural fear that stems from the dangerous existence astronauts deal with on-board a space ship.
I am Jon McKellan, the creative director and writer of Observation. I founded No Code with Managing Director and Lead Audio Omar Khan back in 2015 specifically to make this game!
I've worked in games for over a decade, coming from a graphic design and video background first. I soon found my way into both marketing of games (making trailers, designing box art/marketing materials) as well as the development side, as a 2D Artist and UI Designer. Over the years, I worked on a bunch of projects as UI Lead, and was Lead UI Designer on Alien:Isolation, which had since become my calling card. I had a short stint with Rockstar North, and then founded my own studio No Code in 2015. Somehow we're still going, so we must be doing something right!
Exploring an AI becoming conscious
After Alien: Isolation shipped, I had read an article about the original 1979 film being viewed through the lens of the Alien instead, and how it totally changes your opinion on who is 'bad' in that situation. The animal is born in a hostile environment, is hunted immediately, and it's a child. It might be terrifying and scary looking (and deadly), but it's still a child that needs to eat.
After spending 5 years immersed in that film as research for Isolation, I had never once looked at it that way. I started thinking of other films from this point of view, where the antagonist is clearly painted as The Bad GuyTM and turned to one of my favorites, 2001. In that, HAL9000 is a cold, calculating machine - but he is going through something incomprehensible, too. He's just had a whole new set of senses awaken in him in a way that can't easily be understood and would send most people mad.
In a genre where AI-becoming-conscious stories had been done to death, I had never seen or read one where we explore what that might feel like. To suddenly have new feelings/emotions, yet be expected to still behave like a super-computer. The player would act as that new consciousness in a 4th-wall-breaking way; providing the curiosity, fallibility, emotional attachment, and generally a confusable nature. Once that aspect of it clicked in my head, we were off.
On the tools used to create Observation
The game was built in Unity, relying heavily on Playmaker and FMOD as extensions to that. Outside of the engine, we were using 3DS Max, MotionBuilder, Substance, and pretty much the entire Adobe suite.
Having the player explore the role of being a space station
It was really to put the player in a role that seemed completely unfamiliar, not just in what is being asked of you, but your shifting perspectives and access to systems humans wouldn't. To feel like an alien entity of some sort. It felt like a really nice mirroring of the narrative; here SAM (the AI) is experiencing things in a completely different way, and also, so is the player. You learn together. And as the story develops, we start to incorporate that 'merging' of viewpoints into the story too.
Choosing which abilities to give the player
A lot of the game design was informed by the scenario, but the moment-to-moment stuff was the other way around. For the common set of tools, such as relocation (moving from camera to camera, interacting with objects, etc), that was a case of asking "what tools would SAM have prior to the start of the game to make him an effective addition to the crew?".
Graeme (McKellan, Lead Designer) and I would research what realistically could go wrong practically if the ISS suddenly found itself out by Saturn. Solar Panels would be much less effective, it would struggle to maintain a stable orbit, comms would be disrupted, etc. These issues would inform the moment-to-moment gameplay and what systems would need to be made available to potentially solve the problem. For the first half of the game, at least, but then things start to get strange and the science starts to take a back seat to the mystery. It's all grounded, though; all the problems and solutions are as close to real life as we could get them. Without needing the player to have a PHD in astrophysics, that is.
On the thoughts behind designing puzzles for a ship's AI
It took a bit of adjustment - we had to make sure that the problems were presented in a way that SAM had some usefulness despite being without a physical body. The player had to be able to do something that Emma (the astronaut you work with for most of the game) couldn't do herself, or required help with.
A lot of it comes down to the conversation system "Response Mode" - where Emma will ask for help and you can tell her what she needs to know. It's the part of every Star Trek where a crew member asks "Computer - give me a X..." - the player has to be the one to carry that out, then respond back with some information. The fact you are a fallible human means the crew can be a bit surprised if you make mistakes or take too long. But yeah, that's the key; what things could SAM do - or be expected to do - that directly tie into both the immediate problems, as well as the long term story arc.
On why they explored the connection between human and machine
It really just felt like something we personally hadn't seen done, at least in any detail, and felt like a unique take on this well-mined trope. That concept of the player providing the consciousness in the newly self-conscious, that was something that clicked instantly for people in the pitching/prototype phase; as soon as we explained that, people got it. Or at least, they wanted to see how that played out and what it could mean across a full game.
Making the ship feel alive (and frightening) through audio
Khan: The ambient sounds used on the station were deliberately stark and sparse to heighten the sense of emptiness/loneliness. This, coupled with the creaking groans of the station, gives the constant reminder that all is not well. The music serves as an extension of the sound design; the slightly discordant and atonal textures adds to the overall atmosphere and heightened the sense of unease to keep the player on edge.
The natural terror of a space ship
To be quite honest, it didn't take much to make the environments feel eerie or strange. There's something inherently scary about space stations (the ones that don't look like shopping malls, that is) that are like submarines - you know death is only a few inches away in every direction. It's simply dangerous to be there. That blackness is there, even when you can't see it.
So, when you add even the slightest bit of mystery or unpredictability, it feels magnified. An electrical spark from an outlet on Earth is a hazard to avoid, but on a space station, it could be the destruction of the entire station. Everything is just that much more sensitive. Once we started layering in lighting mood changes, Omar's atmospheric tones and sound design, it very quickly becomes a scary place to be.
This game, an IGF 2020 honoree, is featured as part of the Independent Games Festival ceremony, which was streamed digitally this week and can be viewed on demand on GDC's YouTube channel.