Blade Runner debuted 35 years ago, and that is far too long for us to go without a video game that let’s us inhabit the body of Rutger Hauer who played the replicant leader in that sci-fi classic. Thankfully, the wait is over. Observer is here from developer Blooper Team and publisher Aspyr, and it puts you in the skin of cybernetically enhanced detective with the voice and appearance of Hauer.
Observer launched last month on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC, and I’ve finally put in some time with it on Windows. It’s a cyberpunk horror adventure with a digital-nightmare atmosphere that will make your eyes bleed in a good way. You play as Daniel Lazarski, Hauer’s character, in Poland in the year 2084. Observer hits all the beats of any good cyberpunk fiction. You live in a world recently ravaged by a digital plague, and the massive Chiron corporation has stepped in to capitalize on the collapse of strong central governments.
But the setting is just an excuse for the visual style and the mechanics that Blooper Team, previously best known for the cult horror hit Layers of Fear, employ in Observer.
Future Krakow drowns in ceaseless rain and neon. Computer terminals don’t rely too heavily on the interlaced CRT style that is common these days, but you will come across floppy disks and operating systems that predate Windows.
As Hauer’s Lazarski, you start sitting in your car and having an expository conversation with your boss. Lazarski spends his days diving into people’s minds to extract truth from them as an “observer.” He’s like if Google or Facebook’s psychological-profiling algorithms were a person. But you don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on that job before you get a strange call from your son that you track to a dilapidated apartment in the poorest part of the city.
When you get to the apartment, you find a decapitated body, and that’s when Observer reveals many of its core mechanics. While Hauer is giving players a voice over to add flavor to the environment, you can also hit Q or E on the keyboard to bring up two different kinds of cybernetic visions augmentations. Electromagnetic vision looks for connected devices while bio vision looks for evidence like blood and wounds.
Using those tools, I had to search the apartment and try to figure out the code to its keypad to unlock its door — which locked down when Lazarski called in the murder. You can see that process in the video above.
I liked uncovering clues, but the big draw for me in Observer is how the photorealistic graphics play off of the constant visual effects. The Electromagnetic and bio visions add artifacting, noise, and intense coloration to the world and you can turn them on whenever you want. But after I got out of the apartment, the lights in the hallway went out except for some red emergency panels. So now my depressing neon cyber world has turned ominous and threatening, and that is where the horror comes in.
I haven’t come across any monsters or anything like that yet. I would imagine that I’m going to find something based on the decapitated man and the fact that I’m diving into people’s psyches. But the game is still scaring me with its atmosphere, and appreciate that Blooper did the hard work instead of relying only on cheap tricks. And that’s what makes me want to keep going back to Observer.
Finally, the game supports VR. I haven’t tried that yet, but I plan to and then come back and report on that experience. We’ll see if I survive or if Rutger Hauer invades my consciousness.