Observer – Bloober Team
Observer is a first-person horror game, set in a cyberpunk world built primarily out of nostalgic and exotic remnants of the past.
The year is 2084. Daniel Lazarski (Rutger Hauer) – a cyber-cop specialising in examining the contents of electronically enhanced brains – ends up in the city’s shadiest area. In a run-down tenement house covered with glimmering holograms, he follows a murderer who is no longer strictly human. The first connotations are obvious, but unlike Blade Runner, Observer – the most recent game developed by the Polish game studio Blooper Team – does not take place in Los Angeles. What looms over the tenement house is the tower of the Kraków Jesuit Church. In the corner of a backyard the remnants of the Kraków Main Square’s Adam Mickiewicz statue can be seen, coated in colourful graffiti.
The future in Observer is built mostly out of nostalgic and exotic remnants of the past. In dumpy tenement houses, old CRT TV screens shimmer and the windows are decorated with old-fashioned, lacy curtains. Additional relishes await Polish players – a cleaning robot uses a Predom-Metron-brand vacuum cleaner, Lazarski drives a modern variation of the Polonez (an old Polish car brand) and somebody has posted the most recent issue of the Gazeta Wyborcza newspaper on the wall. Everything is coated in a thin layer of the 21st century, but what can be seen underneath the unstable pile of images of advert holograms is still the debris of history – not only Central European.
In Observer’s world, mankind is history as well, now more and more often enhanced with electronic implants and prostheses, i.e. the tenement house’s concierge, the cyborg Janusz (Arkadiusz Jakubik) or a war veteran whose body is already part-mechanical and whose indolent brain keeps on working only thanks to the electronics connected to it. Lazarski approaches people as a hacker would approach a computer – he is a police Observer, so he hacks into other people’s consciences in search of secrets. He connects himself to the electronics implanted into the brains and scrambles through layers of chaotic memories. We end up in a stream of conscience translated into the language of the three-dimensional space – prompt jumps from one place to another, unending corridors forever re-arranging themselves or ethereal spaces built out of remnants of memories. It is in these sequences that the game shows its teeth – we discover the fates of the subsequent victims without seeing or hearing any words, intuitively, in a series of haunting images and places in which even the geometry is governed by human psyche. It is a narration led in a brave manner, full of sharp cuts and spacial and mental shortcuts, entirely different from the forms of storytelling dominating video games.
Friction is the most important thing in the world of the Observer and it is manifested in numerous forms: holograms on the grey walls in Kraków, the juxtaposition of an 18th-century tenement house and a bizarrely-shaped skyscraper rising up from the fog illuminated by gaudy lights, anachronistic appliances in a futuristic world and the recordings of memories browsed by Lazarski. Arkadiusz Reikowski’s music is a form of friction as well – the artist makes a nod to the aesthetics of Blade Runner’s soundtrack, but switches with ardour to a disturbing chaos of competing motifs, screeches, and splutters. Yet the most important friction is the one between technology and the body. Cyberpunk conventions accustomed us to the refined and over-aestheticised images of technological post-humanity. However, the coalescence of the machine and the body is always a bit obscene, not only in the recurring images of failed medical experiments, but also in the partly digital memories and notions of the victims examined by Lazarski, in which human characters are oftentimes incomplete dolls with mechanical movements and the proliferating hunks of meat consume whole buildings.
Although Observer’s story is quite well written and the cast is solid, what is left in memory after the game’s completion is not the storyline, but the locations. Similar to Ridley Scott, Bloober Team’s developers think mainly in terms of images and space, using which they are able to say more than with words. The future of relations between humans and technology plays out in images – in the clash between the repulsiveness of the old world and the aesthetising violence of the new, in which neither of the two is able to win, therefore even more hideous hybrids emerge.
Layers of Fear – Bloober Team’s previous game – was gripping in many aspects, but also imperfect. Observer has a few flaws, but this time there is no doubt that the Kraków-based developer is currently one of the most interesting and most original voices of the Polish game industry.
Originally written by Paweł Schreiber in Polish, September 2017, translated by Patryk Grabowski, October 2017.Culture.pl