Observer is the rare cyberpunk story that refuses to fetishize its milieu, even today, 30 years after the genre’s inception. William Gibson’s early work, despite its incalculable influence, still throbs with the low-level hum of awestruck Japanophilia subsumed into equally stylish noir tropes. Gibson, as has been remarked on elsewhere, turned away from these fixations starting with his 2003 Pattern Recognition, which treated 9/11 as a reality-rupturing schism in the same way “cyberspace” animated Neuromancer and the rest of the “Sprawl Trilogy”.
Wrought out of concrete monoliths squatting under a sick green sky
Accordingly, modern cyberpunk is all but dried up, with 2017’s Ghost in the Shell remake and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049 returning to that neon well, buckets in hand, for another musty draught. There are enough dizzying implications in the way technology entwines itself with our daily lives that escaping to the safety of another decontextualized tech-noir daydream often feels like a cop-out. Bloober Team’s Observer avoids this trap by erasing the traditional cyberpunk division between meatspace and cyberspace, instead treating them as afterimages of each other, neither constituting a hard reality.
Protagonist Daniel Lazarski is played by Blade Runner’s Rutger Hauer (a coy joke) in wonderfully rumpled, burnt-out fashion. Lazarski is an “observer” with the Krakow police, attempting to investigate a murder in one of the city’s many tenement buildings. A text crawl at the start of the game informs us that Poland in 2084 is under the control of the brutal megacorporation Chiron. The reference to the wise, nurturing centaur of myth is a pitch-perfect evocation of the public face such an entity would kill for.
This Poland is deeply stratified, and aside from one (unreliable) instance we never see how the upper class lives. Lazarski is among the undesirables, addicts and deviants forced by the government into slum housing. The tenement building is a marvel of environmental design: a seemingly endless tangle of corridors burrowing into the ground, with apartment units tucked behind broken walls, set between tenuous mechanical guts, suspended across rickety balconies, worming into any and every inch of available space. The few external scenes reveal a Tsutomu Nihei-esque megacity wrought out of concrete monoliths squatting under a sick green sky.
There is nothing Observer’s narrative has in store that is as immediately impactful as this world. There is reality, the unimaginably filthy postindustrial decay of the tenement building, and atop, through, and between that, the flicker and smear of Lazarski’s constantly malfunctioning augmentations. The combination is frequently disorienting; more often than not I was unsure if the bizarre visual corruption was a byproduct of Lazarski’s implants or a genuine representation of diegetic reality. Surfaces seem to accrete—pixelation growing atop crisp texture work behind shimmering glass. In one of the more obvious touches, the blithe consumerism of the holographic ads posted up around the building gives way to They Live-style horror if the player looks at them for a moment too long.
Bloober Team of course exploit these disquieting disjunctions to their fullest effect. In the same way that their art-shlock horror game Layers of Fear learned its lessons from Hideo Kojima’s ill-fated PT, Observer is one of the first mainstream games to take notes from the work of altgames designers like Kitty Horrorshow and Lily Zone. These influences are front-and-center during the game’s dream-diving sequences, where Lazarski jacks into victims’ neural implants to dig up clues—shades of Tarsem’s The Cell, certainly, or any number of trashy sci-fi premises.
A metaphor for how tightly technology has wrapped itself around human life
But Lasarski is no superdetective. He is an intruder in the mind of another person. These are hostile mindscapes—an idea needlessly literalized via the inclusion of an Amnesia-style monster the player must hide from—where security measures encroach on and cordon off “organic” memories, and the whole mess is eroded by data corruption and viruses.
Indeed, the formal fabric of the game is ripped apart in these scenes. Lasarski can clip through objects and teleport around the level like the player has enabled cheat codes; textures are pulled apart into degraded bands of color; macroblocking and other compression artifacts prevent clarity and smother the screen in noise.
I say “screen” and not “image” because the distinction there—one denoting voyeurism, the other a static presentation—is important to Observer, per its obvious association with the observer effect. To see something is to affect it; the game’s preponderance of TVs, eyes, and eyes on TV screens (often piled up Nam June Paik-style) is no coincidence in this regard. Lasarski is present in the memories, not as an intangible omnipotence but as a physical being. He may see himself as a passive onlooker, the detective working with closed loops and determined certainties, but he is an active participant in and influence on the distorted dramas living within dead minds.
That said, Lasarski begins to doubt his reality just as the player does. This ambiguous line is toed long enough to make Observer genuinely disorienting, and worthy of comparison with its altgames inspirations. The digital world claws into the physical, leaving deep marks; the idea the two were separate to begin with was always a fallacy. Cronenberg’s “new flesh,” one of the bleaker cyberpunk ideas, is instructive here; a splayed-open metaphor for how tightly technology has wrapped itself around human life.
It is unafraid to be ugly in telling a story of ugliness
Observer’s crumbling reality makes this point as effectively as Michael Mann’s scuzzy neo-cyberpunk glitchout Blackhat. And both of them skirt Evan Calder Williams’ conception of “shard cinema:” a digital cinema that foregrounds and celebrates its evident digitality, always conscious of the small armies of labor that go into producing their withering clouds of computer-generated destruction. And, to go further, that Observer is a game, a fully virtual code-based interactive thing, makes its autocorruption closer to the seminal film-burning moment in Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Persona: a demolition of the medium itself, a moment which shatters the pact between viewer/player and film/game in the same way that it depicts a shattering of the boundary between real and virtual.
Observer’s near-future Poland is where the internet, a roiling river of shit thick with the basest human impulses, crashes over the real world like the great flood. The barrier we pretend exists between the two is revealed here for the fantasy it really is. And behind it all, the Corporation, with its genial face—Facebook’s obsequious “What’s on your mind?” or Google’s gladhanding Doodles—as it churns hungrily across the scarred surface of the world. Observer lays bare the means of its own production, its Unreal Engine 4 guts, making us watch as it wrecks its finely wrought digital environments. It is unafraid to be ugly in telling a story of ugliness. That story ends with the absurd morality-tale tidiness of an EC Comics strip because the only other alternative would have been for the game to wipe your hard drive and set your computer on fire.
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