Wot I Think: Observer

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In Observer [official site], AKA David Cronenberg’s Bladerunner, Rutger Hauer is having a very bad day. It begins with a phone call, some family problems, and ends in blood and regret. Hauer lends his voice to the player character, who is the titular Observer, a special kind of cop who can jack into suspects’ memories, hopes and fears as a means of interrogation. To do so, he inserts a cable into a chip lodged in their brain and connects it to his own gray matter.

Around a quarter of the way through this particular grim night, he dives into the mind of a person who has just died, an act of necro-hacking that is totally against protocol. That’s when things get really weird.

For most of its slender running time, Observer is a masterclass in cyberpunk horror. You’re in the dirt and the grime and the grease, elbows deep in the detritus of a society that discards its poor and sickly. The apartment block in the Stacks where you spend the majority of your time is a finely crafted slice of life (and death), brilliantly gesturing toward an entire world beyond itself, while at the same time acting as a perfect claustrophobic warren of inescapable nightmares.

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Within that warren, you set up crime scenes, using methods vaguely reminiscent of the Batman Arkham games. Instead of a magical detective cowl you rely on implants that allow you to scan for tech or biological matter. There are key items to find at each important scene but there’s a wealth of detail to explore – the apartments are so convincing as recreations of lived-in places that you can almost smell them.

Everything plays out from a first-person perspective, and as you’re looking for clues, the UI of your implant’s visual filters will tag and then discard items in the beautifully filthy environments. Maybe it considers drawing your attention to a microwave or a puddle of grease, and it’ll draw a fuzzy box around them before passing over, marking them to be ‘ignored’. It’s this kind of detail that makes the game such a pleasure and it carries through to every carton and keyboard. There’s so much repurposed and recognisable technology, and so many relics of the early twenty-first century still in use.

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Every single piece of body-mod tech in the game feels like a compromise, whether it’s the sagging and flaking prosthetics of a war veteran with a broken mind and body, or the flickers and distortions that interfere with your own vision. Observer doesn’t need heavy doses of exposition because it trusts its players to read the world and characters rather than relying on dumps of data. Only a few conversations are necessary to complete the game and the majority take place through intercoms because a lockdown has trapped all of the tenants in their apartments. Through these short conversations you can learn about the police, the megacorp on much of the marketing, politics, the role of robots in the world, VR, drugs, and personal stories as well.

I’d gone in expecting a “mind-hack insane criminals and experience their terrifying delusions” sort of game, but this is a far sadder and stranger story. Sometimes its notes of empathy don’t quite ring true – a ‘sexbot’ admonishes Hauer when he tells it (her?) that he won’t bother saying goodbye, “Because that would humanise me?” But there is heart and as ugly as the violence gets, it’s never meaningless. Cruel, yes, but coloured by regret and desperation rather than glee or titillation. The actual act of mind-jacking is seen by many of the people you speak to as a violation not just of their rights but of their entire character. The Observer is not a pleasant protagonist.

The main difference between our world and the future version of Krakow ties into augmentations, but they’ve changed the world through perception rather than through practical changes to the body. That’s the case in the Stacks, at least, where the lowest class of citizens live (they’re actually categorised into a class). Public spaces are a glow of adverts that are often indistinguishable from propaganda – the implants allow targeted marketing to become part of the scenery on every wall and street corner, and even in the corridors of the apartment block.

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You’re never sure if the things you’re seeing are real or superimposed onto reality by an implant, but because Observer just provides this way of seeing the world without explaining it, you’ll quickly stop worrying about that distinction. Just as in life, miraculous and/or terrifying technology quickly becomes a normal part of the human experience. If you can see it, it’s real, even if you can’t touch it.

As you might expect, this being a horror game, you can’t trust the evidence of your eyes (and implants) for the entire duration. So much of the game is about perception and it’s during the first mind-jack, when you enter a dying man’s mind, that the developers really start to play with the visuals. You replay the key moments of this man’s life, building up to the moment he died, and scenes collapse, reconstruct, deconstruct and loop around you. It’s spectacular and even if there’s sometimes a sense that these sections are primarily a lightshow rather than an interactive narrative, when the lightshow is this good, I’m OK with that.

And outside of the mindjack segments there are puzzles to solve, and there are horrors to outrun and evade within them. The moments when the monsters become more explicit are few and far between – and the reality-shifting means their exact nature is unclear – but the very occasional stealth sections are when the game hits its lowest points. They’re brief, thankfully, but as in Frictional Games’ SOMA, Observer is much more interesting when it engages with its world and has you study and recoil from it, rather than when it’s putting on a gory Halloween mask and chasing you down a corridor.

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It’s a shame that some of the more blatant and tired horror aspects detract from the actual horror of the science fiction. The most frightening scene in the entire game involves a memory of a job interview. It’s like a Voight-Kampff test that is trying to distinguish social worth rather than humanity, but the results might be just as damning. A credit check for the soul.

There are more grisly terrors though, including some extreme body horror that made me flinch (in a good way) and some stock infernal imagery that made me frown (in a bad way). Mostly it’s strong work.

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Observer is a gem, but a gem with very obvious flaws. These range from fiddly things that bother me just enough to mention them, like the dialogue options being off-centre and the pixel-sized targeting reticule used to select them often blending into the scenery. Then there’s the time I confused the game and myself by completing two objectives in an unexpected order, leading to a bit of backtracking as I made sure every prompt had been triggered.

Feedback is occasionally a problem. Tasked with investigating the apartment of a “noisy neighbour” by one of the tenants, I entered the place to find buckets of blood and décor that Leatherface and family would deem “a little bit distasteful and OTT”. Rutger didn’t monologue about it though, as if he’d seen nothing out of the ordinary. To tick the investigation off my list of tasks, and to have Rutger respond at all, I had to find a specific switch that opened up a safe with more specific evidence of wrongdoing.

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I can take occasionally clumsy design when it’s backed by such fantastic imagery and world-building, all in the service of a story worth playing through to the grisly end.

While I was playing, I kept thinking back to my conversation with Cyberpunk 2020 creator Mike Pondsmith. This, I think, is a cyberpunk game that captures the social and political aspects of the genre, as well as the body horror and the credibility of the tech. What it doesn’t have is the cool factor, and that’s because we’re only shown one part of the world – a part where everything has gone to hell and where nobody wants to draw attention to themselves. It’s the Cronenbergian cyberpunk game I never knew I wanted, and it’s shot right into my top ten of the year so far.

Observer is out now for Windows, via gog and Steam, for £22.99.

41 Comments

  1. Josh W says:

    Cool, if the body horror makes you recoil, it’s probably too much for me, at least in a computer game, which is a shame, but otherwise this sounds right up my alley. (a dim and humming one, slick with rain)

  2. FurryLippedSquid says:

    I am not a fan of horror games but this sounds amazing!

  3. MrBehemoth says:

    This looks like My Jam.

    SOMA meets Blade Runner. Or Cyberpunk Psychonauts, if I may.

  4. Kollega says:

    So, in a rare turn of events, we have a cyberpunk game that does what cyberpunk fiction has originally set out to do: strip out all the glamour and just leave the horror, as far as the dystopian technological future is concerned. And this seems like a big achievement. But of course… it doesn’t make me feel any better. And I feel that a quote might best explain why. A quote from a conspicuously unlikely source – a Pixar movie about a rat doing gourmet cooking in Paris.

    Remy: No.
    Django: [turning back] What?
    Remy: No. Dad, I don’t believe it. You’re telling me, that the future is – can only be – more of this?
    Django: This is the way things are. You can’t change nature.
    Remy: Change is nature, Dad. The part that we can influence. And it starts when we decide.
    [he turns to leave]
    Django: Where are you going?
    Remy: With luck, forward.

    In other words… it’s good that someone made a cyberpunk game that’s actually properly terrifying, but oh what I wouldn’t do for a plausible, yet optimistic vision of the future in some game. And it’s not like that’s very hard to think of. You just gotta look at all the good things that don’t get reported on the evening news.

    • Unclepauly says:

      Eh, all things end. When they do it’s almost always badly. That is the interesting part to me, when and how will it end badly? These dystopian themes focus on that slide into the end simply because it is more fascinating. The mix of fear and awe of the technology that brings the end about is hard to resist. Our civilization *will* end one day, many people believe the end will look something like this. A golden age of society is less interesting to people and I think it’s because people already believe we’re in the golden age(we’re not even close). I just don’t see utopia ever being a bigger draw than dystopia simply because the fear factor has such a big effect.

      • Kollega says:

        I, personally, have a hunch that I am less willing to wallow in doom and gloom than some other people simply because my environment already often looks like a location set for filming The Hunger Games movies. Familarity with misery breeds contempt for it, and contempt for misery breeds the desire for things to be better.

        • sterlins says:

          I disagree with familiarity with misery makes you more likely to desire better. Familiarity with misery makes you miserly, and most likely will increase your tolerance for it. Numbness and all that.

          While your mindset seems very good and positive, and I don’t think your response is a universal one or even one of the majority. I think most people respond to darkness and evil with generally more evil. Every action breeds an equal opposite reaction.

          But the paradox to that is that the opposite of evil inflicted on one group, is evil inflicted on the other.

          • Kollega says:

            I honestly don’t know why other people don’t think the same way, but even as I become desensetized to evil and suffering, I don’t start to “like it” one bit more. It’s always like that one line from Calvin and Hobbes: “Life could be worse, Calvin.” “Life could be a lot better, too!”

            And really, no-one’s life is going to be all sunshine and rainbows, and there are always moral grey areas… but you’ve got to draw the line somewhere for what sort of badness you’ll no longer accept.

        • lordcooper says:

          Rebuttal: Basically all Russian literature (and to a lesser extent, games).

          • Kollega says:

            Full disclosure: I am Russian, but I in all sincerity believe that Tolstoy’s “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is a bullshit adage :P

      • Jim Dandy says:

        “Eh, all things end. When they do it’s almost always badly.”

        What about dessert?

    • welverin says:

      Why aren’t there more games with a positive and optimistic view of the future? Because they wouldn’t make for as interesting a game. most games revolve around some kind of violent conflict, which simply isn’t suited to such a setting.

      Yoou could set a game in some optimistic future, but once you start doing what games typicaly do, you undermine that vision, which defeats the purpose.

      edit: I forgot, creative people who tell stories just seem to be negative and downbeat endings are more interesting than happy ones.

      • Kollega says:

        That is untrue. Neither of those two assertions stand up to rational analysis.

        Point one: you can totally have an upbeat, optimistic story about a bright future with conflict in it; remember, building and sustaining a good world is a running battle. Just imagine all the stories that could be made about the goodie-goodie protagonists safeguarding their liberty, equality, and fraternity against people like wannabe evil fascists, corrupt businesspeople full of selfish dreams, and other people who might seek to topple the optimistic utopian society. For an example of how this might work, look no further than Zootopia.

        Point two: “downbeat endings are more interesting than happy ones” only to people who do not live in the constant state of fear, misery, pain, and deprivation. And there are enough of people who live like that even in the allegedly-prosperous “Western” countries. As far as I am concerned – and I do have to contend with a shitty existence in what was formerly the “second world”, and now is just a crumbling inequality-ridden dystopia – the best endings are the happy ones that were earned with blood, sweat, tears, and other substances that symbolically mean effort and sacrifice. It’s the best of both worlds; you can have a dark story where you’re not sure if the heroes will prevail, but in the end, they do prevail.

    • Blackcompany says:

      Could not agree more with your desire to see something shiny and optimistic and pleasant.

      I know lots of people who love Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. Both shows that are undeniably very good, at least at doing what they do.

      But to watch them is to wallow in abject misery. To take in so much pain and suffering. I dont WANT to feel that way. I dont want to watch others feel that way. And I definitely, absolutely DO NOT want to watch others GLEEFULLY inflict those feelings on people.

      That so many people not only watch, but ENJOY Walking Dead and GoT says…something about our society. I dont know what that something is, but I am pretty sure, its nothing good.

      • Kollega says:

        I’m afraid that I know what it shows about our society. And this is a controversial point of view, that some people will inevitably call bullshit on. But it’s a view that’s been logically deduced by me and my friends after a lot of dwelling on it, and one I’m willing to stand by.

        The reason people actively enjoy something like Game of Thrones is, in essence, the combined result of being selfish and “living the high life”. Look at how well middle-class Americans lived in 1990s, and then look at the American comics from that period. Too many people in our time live such comfortable lives and care so little about their fellow man that in their mind, the kind of misery seen in Game of Thrones or Walking Dead is simply not possible, and those shows are just an escapist fantasy about being “a hardcore, edgy badass”. But of course, it’s an illusion that such misery doesn’t exist in our world; just look at the small towns in Appalachia or the Rust Belt for a mild example – never mind the places like Africa or Middle Asia or Syria or North Korea where life really does suck.

        And I do not suppose I have to explain to anyone here where such complacent mindset has gotten us all, and how it’s something that we might perhaps want to end before it ends us.

        Funnily enough… such an end might very well look like what Observer depicts, and this is the reason why I think we need some optimistic visions of the future. Because without those, all the grim and dark depictions of the future might easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy if we only have those.

        • Jim Dandy says:

          I don’t know about that, Kollega. Humans have a long and baroque history of the worst kind of sick-fuckness imaginable, and imagine it we have. With gusto. From GoT and A Serbian Film, back through Driller Killer and Cannibal Holocaust, past Herschel Gordon Lewis and T.V. Mykels and Freaks, then back to the real carny geeks, to Grand Guignol and the old Marquis, all the way to the Coliseum’s sand, ankle deep with blood.

          Shit, we’ve been making art out of the misery of others since we first put ochre on a skull.

          The only new thing about GoT and its ilk is that modern distribution tech’ has made long-format, big-budget exploitative media a viable sell.

          Which isn’t to say this society hasn’t been stupendously (and I use the term advisedly) cocked up, just that GoT isn’t anything we haven’t seen a million times over thousands of years.

          • Kollega says:

            Now that you mentioned it, I am actually more than willing to compare Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead and similar ultra-popular grimdark fiction to the Roman Empire’s “bread and circuses”. It’s the same bloody, exploitative bullshit, except in our times, killing for fun is unacceptable, so all the death and horror is played by actors to be shown on the small screen.

            And maybe it’s undue to say that proliferation of grimdark media today is unique in history… but to be fair to my point, Cannibal Holocaust was never a smash hit with millions of viewers, and the pulp magazines of the 1930s weren’t that outrageously grimdark, despite life at the times being quantifiably worse than it is today (though I don’t know about penny dreadfuls that preceded them).

            I think what makes modern ultra-gritty entertainment stand out is the sheer popularity of it and the entusiasm damn near everyone seems to have for it. Even the exploitation film boom of 1960s-1970s wasn’t heralded as “the best thing ever”, and film was around for 70 years before it happened. And it’s especially strange (and alarming) given how nowadays, many people have societal norms against e.g. war and torture, when those were A-OK for most of the human history. I mean, we probably need some amount of grim-and-gritty entertainment just like we need some amount of calcium for our bones to be strong, but when there’s almost nothing but grim-and-gritty entertainment, and everyone is so enthusiastic about it, it does become a matter of concern…

          • Jim Dandy says:

            I’m still not convinced that there’s been a significant change in people’s appetite for ugly. Blood and tits have put bums on seats since the profitability of combining bums with seats was first noted.

            GoT has unusually high production values for exploitation media, which has historically been considered a dumb move. Bob Guccioni blew a lot of cash on Caligula, but it turned out that getting John Gielgud to stand around looking uncomfortable in a toga while a couple of people desultorily ate each other out in the background wasn’t a blockbuster proposition.

            It’s the technology that’s different now. Barriers to entry are vastly lower, and distribution to a global audience is available at close to zero marginal cost. At all times, we’re just a tap or click away from accessing the sickest kind of porn or graphic footage of real violence. Sometimes—often—they’re the same thing. GoT isn’t able to compete on shock-value, so it competes with quality (or the semblance thereof that a decent budget can provide).

            Is exploitative media more available than in the past? Probably. It’s definitely more visible. Are we sicker as a species than we always have been? I don’t know. Look at some ‘roughies’* from the 60s and compare them to something from the Soska sisters. I see progress there; something new that wasn’t possible then. GoT might put stuff on small screens that wasn’t possible in the 50s, but so does Broad City.

            *Don’t.

          • Kollega says:

            Fine. I’m just going to hand in my mandate to make the world better (no I won’t) and embrace all the most awful things about me as a human being because there’s nothing else to do (yes there is). Pip-pip-cheerio!

          • Jim Dandy says:

            Hey, I never said we shouldn’t try to make this dismal carnival a little brighter. I just disagree that Game Of Thrones is in any way exemplary of our current state of societal degradation.

            Donald Fucking Trump fondling a glowing orb in celebration of selling apocalyptic quantities of weapons to the Saudis, on the other hand? That kind of imagery does vex me.

          • Kollega says:

            And now I regret not saying, a bit earlier, a line about “can’t you get your grimdark entertainment from the evening news?” like I wanted to originally. Would be less misunderstanding if I did that :P

            Which, incidentially, brings me to say that The Hunger Games is one grimdark story that’s pretty good about condemning the “bread and circuses” mentality towards ugly shit instead of celebrating all of that. Or at least it’s not as insistent on glamorizing death and suffering.

            The reason I remembered it, is that it was specifically inspired by an unholy combination of “war in primetime” and really shitty reality TV.

    • syndrome says:

      but oh what I wouldn’t do for a plausible, yet optimistic vision of the future in some game. And it’s not like that’s very hard to think of. You just gotta look at all the good things that don’t get reported on the evening news.

      Here’s my 2 cents.. Perhaps we need visions of what we’re ought to avoid, instead of visions of where we’d like to be?

      Dystopian projection of our contemporary self, well, it’s not just “interesting”, it’s profoundly worth of investigation — how do we actually get from _here_ to _there_? Should we change something now? What needs to be changed along the way?

      Such questions are definitely worth exploring, but to first acknowledge them, we need to feel the potentiality of our own ignorance and misjudgement, blatantly addressed by a simple myth, projected into the future as a bitter spectrum of our complex misdeeds.

      This is why art has always been dystopian. To highlight a true monster. Ignoring it is naive, at best, but most likely dangerous.

      In my interpretation, confronting such a fear of self (self as a humanity) wakes up the inner child, dissolves the ego, and ultimately shifts the world into a better place. Confrontation acts as a navigation tool of sorts. It calibrates the ethics under which we operate. It strenghtens the revelation of fears that we share collectively. What makes us human in the first place?

      Does manifested optimism makes us aware of such pitfalls?

      This is why good existential horror is so important. It connects us to our true purpose. That’s why children are afraid of imaginary boogeymen.

      • Kollega says:

        The idea of dystopian fiction as a big ole guidebook of what not to do is a valuable and important one, and one we should definitely keep in mind. But to imply that we need only literary dystopias, and nothing else, is defeatist and shortsighted at best.

        Like it or not, we need both the visions of a future that we must avoid, and the visions of a future to strive towards. Because, philosophically speaking… if we only see the future as more horror and misery, why even bother with going there?

        • syndrome says:

          I never said that should be the only literary option there is. For starters, you could join a Jehova’s witness club and tell me whether that’s something that works for you.

          Kids hug lions, snakes snuggle with chickens, everybody’s happy. So enjoyable, and so utterly uninspiring.

          We as humans, need PROBLEMS presented to us. Not utopias, where everything is already solved. What’s the point in living if there is no need for a struggling human soul?

          There is nothing to be learned from an utopia, and although such worlds might be worthy of exploring, ONLY TO POKE THEM AND SEE WHAT BREAKS THEM, unfortunately there is not a single economic incentive for anyone to invest their time at envisioning one.

          If you don’t believe me, ok, let’s try a little game. Imagine a beautiful utopia. That’s clearly something that’s not defeatist and short-sighted. Right?

          Now tell me what you do in it? Ok, you have a wonderful time. You’re enjoying yourself. You’re one with the gods. There is nothing to solve, nothing to try, nothing to go wrong. What’s that? You do nothing? You’re a little bored? Really?

          Now take a gun and shoot yourself. What? No guns? Ohhh, that’s a pity. Go drown yourself. What? A robot doesn’t let you? Ohhh, that’s a pity as well.

          Ok, be creative, perhaps you’ll find a way to explain yourself how this utopia just turned into an existential horror.

          • Kollega says:

            I bet you think that the entire slice-of-life genre, entire comedy genre, beautiful landscape paintings, wonderful photographs of space and depictions of other planets, anything about scientists cracking tough problems to better human lives while also saving the environment, and basically everything under the sun that’s not a blood-soaked shitdark slog through pain and misery with the ultimate destination of total oblivion are “boring and naive” to you too.

            There’s simply no convincing come people.

  5. vahnn says:

    Ugh, still 2 days before I get home from work to play this…

  6. Javier says:

    I disliked Layers of Fear. Anyone in my position that enjoyed this? I’m very intrigued, but somewhat skeptical that this will be different enough.

    • Bradamantium says:

      Layers of Fear is one of very few games I fell off of and just straight uninstalled instead of pretending I’d wrap it up someday.

      Observer, however, is probably the best surprise of the year for me so far. It helps that I went in with fairly low expectations, but it really is a much better game. Where Layers was content to let the player just stroll through its lackluster haunted house, Observer makes the player engage with its world a lot more in a way that makes it pretty interesting, not to mention Actually Scary.

      • Javier says:

        We seem to share the exact same overall impression of Layers of Fear, so I’m letting myself be a bit more excited about this. Thanks a lot!

    • poliovaccine says:

      I mean, I didnt like Layers of Fear myself, but for all its faults, I think this game was a wise move – they arent much good at pathos (as the review alludes), but doubling down on detailed worldbuilding and shedding any pretense of ordinary reality, instead fully indulging the fictional side of things, that I think would be playing to their strengths. This sounds entirely worth a try to me, anyway. Havent tried it yet, but in spite of my distaste for Layers of Fear I am absolutely prepared to discover that this is as great as it sounds.

      Besides, they dont seem to give the RPS Recommended sticker incredibly liberally, so that actually counts for a fair bit to me.

    • Premium User Badge

      Graham Smith says:

      Adam disliked Layers of Fear: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  7. Herzog says:

    In Observer [official site], AKA David Cronenberg’s Bladerunner, Rutger Hauer is having a very bad day

    This description alone puts it on my wish list. Should I read further or go in blind?

  8. Kolbex says:

    I was enjoying the atmosphere (although the actual gameplay is quite bland) right up until the first mindjack scene, which just waaaaaaay overstayed its welcome. God, how tedious. I really hope the rest of them aren’t like that, or I may just not finish it.

    • Rikard Peterson says:

      What kind of gameplay is it? The review mentions some less-than-great stealth, but other than that I don’t get a good idea of what it’s about. Is it just walk and talk sort of things (which would be fine by me), or does it involve getting shot in the head repeatedly? (I phrase it like that rather than as shooting things, because that’s the usual outcome for me in those games.)

      • Kolbex says:

        Haven’t finished it, but there are no weapons at all as far as I’ve seen (sounds like I’m maybe halfway through?). It’s all walk, look, click and I’ve only been through one (actually kind of nerve-wracking) stealth sequence so far.

        Really, this would have made a good 100-minute movie. There is kind of no reason at all for it to be a game.

  9. Cash at Folsom says:

    I encountered a whole slew of bugs (to be fair, I was playing on PS4 so YMMV). And as mentioned in the review, the quest design is also lacking. There were several times where I had my own experiences of wandering off of the path the designers assumed I would take, and breaking things. Interested players should be well aware that this is definitely an “interactive story” first and a game a distant second.

    Despite this, I cannot stop thinking about the experience a day after finishing it. It has all the makings of a cult classic.

    Major Spoilers

  10. Farnbeak says:

    Nice review, but a bit too much spoilery :(
    Definitely going to buy the game now!

  11. Unsheep says:

    Has any streamer actually noticed that Rutger Hauer is in the game, or even recognized who he is?!

    A cool game though, in contrast to the first game you can actually do stuff in this one.

  12. Nixitur says:

    Trailers of the game that I’ve seen are mostly along the lines of “Oouuuh, here’s some gore and also some gross-out horror.” and I just ignored the game based on that.
    But if it’s more of a detective thing with occasional horror, then that might be more up my alley. I’m surprised that they didn’t show that, really.