When people talk about Observer (or >observer_ to give it its full, official styling), the first thing they usually say is: “It’s that cyberpunk horror game with that chap from Bladerunner in it.” It’s the perfect pairing, they proclaim, and yes, if you’re going to get a famous cyberpunkian to play a cyberpunk cop that can jack into suspects’ neural networks to ‘observe’ and interrogate their memories, it doesn’t get much better than Rutger Hauer.
But that’s probably the least interesting thing about Observer in my books. Sure, it’s a nice coup to stick on your store page, but for me, the real masterstroke is its portrait of unrelentingly grim cyberpunk future where both its people and the world at large have been unceremoniously dumped down the toilet.
It’s a grey, miserable evening when you get a strange call from your estranged son, and it only gets greyer and more miserable when you trace it to his run-down apartment block. Walls have been bashed-in left, right and centre (whether through negligence or by some terrible force that’s ripped through the building, you can’t say for sure), rain pours into the hallways through broken windows and cracks in the plaster, and frayed, electrical wiring fizzes as it gives power to beaming propaganda posters.
Indeed, there appear to be more flea-bitten pigeons nesting here than human residents, nearly all of whom have been locked inside their tiny homes due to a building-wide lockdown that’s been put in place after you discover a series of murders in some of the rooms. It’s the kind of nightmare fuel I imagine most parents dream up when their kids start renting their first flats, but even Alice B’s awful, awful bathroom disaster of 2018 doesn’t come close to matching the crumbling deprivation of Observer’s tenement building.
It’s in such a state that it can be disorienting at times, its dozens of seemingly-bulldozed walls often turning you around in circles without you realising it. Just when you think you’ve found your way out of this warren-like maze, you realise it’s the same hallway you were in five minutes ago and you’re even further away from where you need to be than before. It’s confusing and occasionally frustrating, but I do like how it feels lived-in and colonised. It is undeniably the space of its residents, and it’s fascinating getting to wander around it almost completely uninhibited.
The only other person you encounter during your time here (apart from the dead ones, of course) is the janitor, a bald, sweaty half-cyberman who’s barely being kept alive by his shoddy, backstreet implants. The rest are all cooped up in their respective homes, although you might get a flash of a glitchy eye or pair of lips from the ones that deign to answer their intercom when you beep their front doorbell to ask them a few questions. It’s more prison than apartment block, really, the janitor its dazed, belligerent warden. But for me, it’s these ramshackle walls that deserve the star-billing here, not the gruff, husky tones of one Mr Hauer. The game has its flaws, sure (some of its surreal memory hacking sequences are particularly irritating), but as a bit of cyberpunk world-building, there’s nothing else like it.