Whenever I ask to imagine the future of VR, they paint me a picture of people of all ages now unrestricted by money or disability. Visit far of lands, embrace distant relatives, experience adventure you could only ever dream of, and it doesn’t even matter if you’re in a wheelchair. It’s a lovely thought that I’d love to agree with (even if the headsets do make me feel like my equilibrium just went ten rounds with Mike Tyson after I polish off a bottle of Patron), but is that really it? If you could augment your reality to make your living room look like the sandy beaches of Maui, why would you stop there? Tired of your bare walls and complete lack of decorations? Bam! Now your walls are decorated and no one sees the empty pizza boxes piled into a nightstand. Sad that the cute girl never wants to flirt with you at the bar? Presto, now every chick in the room is a mash-up of Gal Gadot and Natalie Dormer. Can’t put in the work to get those abs you’ve always wanted? SHAZAM! Now your virtual avatar is a sex god from the planet of dreams.
All it requires is for everyone to be plugged into the virtual world constantly and a complete rejection of nature and thousands of years of normal human interaction. Okay, so kind of a stretch. Perfect setting for a cyberpunk dystopia, though. If only anyone was making a game like that… Oh hello there, Bloober Team! I didn’t see you there, lurking inside a little display in the Microsoft section of E3. What’s that? You’re making a dystopian cyberpunk game where humanity has retreated into an existence of perpetual VR escapism? How convenient, I was just ranting about that.
Now of course I kid. I’ve been looking forward to >Observer_ since they revealed the trailer at E3 2016. The trailer was sick, but from what our associate April got from the team really intrigued me. Check out the trailer:
If the name Bloober Team sounds familiar, that’s because they’re the minds behind last year’s indie hit Layers of Fear. You can check out my full thoughts on that game if you want, but as a brief recap I thought it was beautiful and disturbing at a level well beyond the asking price. It simultaneously spooked me enough to want to stop and drew me in so much that I couldn’t put it down. So of course when their publishers at Aspyr Media asked if I wanted a hands on, I couldn’t say no. Just as long as it was in a brightly lit room with minimal spectators.
The section I played was short, but what I saw got me right to the edge of my seat. There’s a brief introduction at the start giving you the rundown, which I’ll summarize here with their Official Fact Sheet:
Krakow, the Fifth Polish Republic. The year is 2084. If you somehow survived the Nanophage, odds are you were killed in the War. Those who live have turned to drugs, VR, neural implants—anything to distract themselves from this new reality. You are Daniel Lazarski, an elite neural detective known as an Observer, and part of a corporate-funded police unit whose purpose is to hack and invade suspects’ minds. In this future, anything you think, feel, or remember can be used against you in a court of law.
When you receive a mysterious message from your estranged son, a high-level engineer for the almighty Chiron Corporation, you journey to the seedy Class C slums of Krakow to investigate. But as you hack into the unstable minds of criminals and victims to look for clues, you are forced relive their darkest fears. How far will you go to discover the truth?
Nifty, I can dig mind cops. As I loaded into the demo, it’s immediately apparent that this isn’t the glossy techno-future of sleek buildings and chrome everything. The hallways are damp, and the lights flicker as the whirring tech sputters and struggles to keep going. My immediate objective was to find a specific room, with a side quest to talk to some of the residents about what they saw. Knocking on the various doors, the monitors they used to communicate would crackle to life as they told me in various levels of rudeness to mind my own business.
You see, in the world of >Observer_, people don’t like you very much. That’s a funny thing about the secret memory stealing mind police owned by the evil corporate overlords. They aren’t super popular. This real world will serve as the grounded reality for your investigation, similar to the house in Layers of Fear. Here you can do normal detective stuff, using a combination of electro-vision, bio-vision, and interrogation to hunt for clues. This world is dark, decaying, but overall normal. It serves to stem the flow of all the psychological horror, giving you a chance to reset and collect yourself before delving into the next distorted memory. That isn’t to say there isn’t disturbing shit to see in the real world. I was promised one particular scene with a pig will give me nightmares.
Walking down the hallway to the door I was looking for, I find a severely wounded man slumped against a bathtub. As the building is on lockdown, there’s no chance of saving him. But you can find out what he knows. After getting him to weakly nod his consent, you plug into his implant and off to the nightmare world you go. I was shocked with just how quickly >Observer_ goes from 0 to 100. As soon as you are in, you are bombarded with imagery of squalor, drugs, and a fair amount of crows. Similar to Layers of Fear, it’s all very symbolic. They have definitely learned from their previous game, as there was far less walking this time. There was still a lot to see, but the focus was on clever navigation over just walking down various hallways until something happens. There was a nifty puzzle involving a TV that I’m sure will take people some time to even realize is a puzzle.
It only took me about 20 minutes to see all there was to see, but am told that the overall game will be closer to a dozen hours. If what I saw of >Observer_ is indicative of the final product, then horror fans should be excited. If your biggest problem with Layers of Fear was that you just walk around a bunch until the credits roll, >Observer_ will be more of what you are looking for. The investigative elements and pressing need to solve a mystery makes >Observer_ (ironically) far more involving.
I wish I could show you more, and I know there are a few YouTube videos out there if you can put up with YouTube quality commentary. Worry not, as I have something else special for you. The people over at Aspyr Media were kind enough to send me the >Observer_ highlight reel they’re submitting to the people at Unreal to show just how pretty it looks. And let me tell you, it looks gorgeous. So what about you folks? Excited for >Observer_? Ready to see what horrors the world of evil Psychonauts has to offer? >Observer_ launches later this year on Xbox One, PS4, and PC, so it won’t be long until I can give you the full review. Let me know below, and enjoy the video!