When you look at films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Gravity, and Aliens, you realize just how effective a sci-fi thriller can be when it’s done right. Observation, a unique title developed by a small American studio named No Code, is a game that is looking to take what worked best in those stories- but flip it on its head. What if you’re in 2001, but instead of the crew, you view everything from the perspective of HAL? It’s a concept that immediately grabs your attention- which is to say, we’re quite excited about the game’s upcoming 2019 release. Recently, we had the chance to send some of our questions about the game, No Code’s influences, how they’re reconciling their vision with how the game actually plays, and much more to the developers, which were answered by John McKellan (creative director and writer), Grame McKellan (lead designer), and Omar Khan (lead audio).
"A while back I started to look at familiar horror or sci-fi tropes, and try to flip the perspective on them. Alien from the Xenomorphs point of view for example, or 2001 from HAL’s. Things get much less black and white."
The whole idea of playing as the AI that controls the space station seems like such a unique and fascinating one. How did this idea come about?
Jon McKellan (Creative Director/Writer): It was a mix of things really, but a while back I started to look at familiar horror or sci-fi tropes, and try to flip the perspective on them. Alien from the Xenomorphs point of view for example, or 2001 from HAL’s. Things get much less black and white.
As a separate ‘goal’ of sorts, I wanted to write a story where the players presence had a direct impact on the story, beyond just standard gameplay. So what if an AI had become self-aware, at the moment where a human literally had started controlling them? Any decision made by a player could seem out of place for an AI. The players’ inquisitiveness or even failure to do some actions, would be something the crew might comment on in-world. It felt like a great way to tie it all together – the player is the new consciousness, and the crew know something is up.
How exactly does that work in terms of gameplay? Is it mostly puzzle solving, or are there other facets that players need to think about as well?
Jon McKellan: It’s a whole bunch of things – we like to ‘genre-hop’. There are plenty of adventure-style puzzles in there, but also things like reactions, explorations and dialogue come into play in ways we’ve not done on previous titles. Every mechanic has been considered with the SAM-POV in mind. When a crew member asks the AI to open a door, they are asking you to open the door. You are the station, so you don’t have these automatic things happening any more – you have to do it yourself.
As an extension to that question, how will puzzles work in Observation? Can you talk to us a bit about how they’re designed?
Graeme McKellan (Lead Designer): As you progress through the narrative, SAM is “re-learning” some of the tasks he would have carried out prior to his awakening, so many of the puzzles will use evolving core mechanics that are focused around controlling the station environment and tapping into information that is available to you. SAM is regaining his control over the station and uses these abilities to solve problems.
On the flip-side, we also want you to feel that you are working beyond your original scope and use your new “intelligence” to problem solve new, unique puzzles. These might involve taking control over systems that were really only designed for the crew or react quickly to situations you have never encountered before. Here the player has to solve a puzzle they are looking at for the first time, and sometimes only get one shot at it!
"We’re not going for all-out terror with Observation, but more a thriller with some uneasy atmosphere. We want you to be glued to your seat, not hiding behind it. That said, there is some pretty heavy stuff in there. We’re not going to jump-scare you to death, but you won’t necessarily feel particularly comfortable either!"
The game obviously has very serious 2001: A Space Odyssey vibes- so does it take after that purely in terms of premise and setting, or can we expect to see some of its more abstract, metaphysical concepts in Observation as well? Or is this purely a sci-fi story?
Jon McKellan: I don’t want to give anything away of course, but our story takes some twists and turns that I don’t think people will be expecting. Obviously 2001 (and a few other AI-driven stories) have had an influence, but there is a much grander story here than simply being SAM. It’s about his relationship with the crew, why it’s happened, and most importantly, what happens next…
Have any other books, movies, or games inspired you during the development of Observation?
Jon McKellan: Too many to mention really! Films like Europa Report and some Paranormal Activity-esque found-footage is something I refer to often purely for point of view reference. Europa Report especially was filmed from the angles of CCTV footage and crew body cameras, and that was a perfect reference on how to still clearly tell stories and get emotion across from the cast whilst having these disembodied angles on the world. I read all the 2001 book series when writing, but I definitely feel like our story goes in a very different direction. Becoming self-aware is just the beginning for SAM.
Omar Khan (Audio Lead): There is loads of reference material that inspires various parts of the game. Real footage and screen shots from the International Space Station (ISS) is used extensively throughout the Art department to create a realistic and grounded environment as well as making sure all the Zero Gravity character animations are accurate.
To get the creative juices flowing it’s great to immerse yourself in as much material as you can, as much for inspiration as anything else. Gravity is a great example for the blend of realism and hyperrealism in audio, for knowing when to stick to the rules and when to break them.
From what we’ve seen of the game so far, there definitely seems to be horror undertones as well. Are you going to be leaning much into that?
Jon McKellan: It’s not actually as horror-focused as people may think. We’re not going for all-out terror with Observation, but more a thriller with some uneasy atmosphere. We want you to be glued to your seat, not hiding behind it. That said, there is some pretty heavy stuff in there. We’re not going to jump-scare you to death, but you won’t necessarily feel particularly comfortable either!
IGN’s cover feature on Observation mentions that this has been a longtime passion project at No Code. Can you talk to us about the journey of this project, from conceptualization, up to now? How long have you wanted to develop this?
Jon McKellan: I basically started No Code to make this game. It was an idea I had developed when I was between jobs for a short time, and then when it came to setting up the studio, it was the game I wanted to make most. Other things came first, but we started prototyping ideas and pitching very quick out of the gate, whilst doing some projects.
We built a 15 minute demo, which is not a million miles away from what has ended up being the intro to the game, and pitched it to various publishers. We got strong interest right away, but it took a long time to get things running. Whilst we waited on the contracts getting signed, we built Stories Untold to “pass the time”.
Omar Khan: Since the inception of No Code, we have basically been building to the point of making Observation. With each game, the scope and team size has increased, and we are continually pushing the boundaries of what a small independent studio is capable of. Each project has been an amazing learning experience and stepping stone that has ultimately afforded us the possibility of making this game. Working with Devolver on Stories Untold has been key to getting a project of this scale off the ground and the fantastic group of developers we now work with has made it all possible.
"We want the player to feel like that they can “break their programming” to a certain extent, and use their new found sense of inquiry and free thinking. There is a variety of things to be learned and discovered, the more inquisitive you are the more you will find."
One bit of information about the game that seems particularly interesting is that it will have no Game Over states. Can you talk to us a bit about that?
Graeme McKellan: Yeah, there is no game over state. That was a very early design choice, we had a story that we wanted to tell but felt that having hard fail states would ruin some of the immersion and player agency we were really keen to keep strong. Instead we have situations where you have to live with your actions and decisions, success or failure.
Will there be any optional content in the game, or is it a strictly guided experience?
Graeme McKellan: Like I’ve mentioned, we do have a story that we want to tell, but there is room for affecting the delivery of that narrative through your actions and decisions.
Also, we want the player to feel like that they can “break their programming” to a certain extent, and use their new found sense of inquiry and free thinking. There is a variety of things to be learned and discovered, the more inquisitive you are the more you will find.
Jon McKellan: There are parts of the game where things are very linear, and other parts where we loosen the reigns a bit and let you do things in your own time, as well as head off the beaten path and go exploring.
Do you have any plans for bringing Observation to the Xbox One or Nintendo Switch?
Jon McKellan: We’ve not looked beyond PS4 and PC for now. We want to get those builds in the best state we can and released before we even entertain anything else further down the line.
Furthermore, is there a specific reason behind the PS4’s console exclusivity and why the game is not on those platforms?
Jon McKellan: Sony took an early interest in this game and has worked closely with Devolver for a number of years and have a longstanding relationship. They’ve been great to work with, and along with Devolver have given us the support we needed to get things moving.
How will the PS4 Pro version turn out in terms of resolution and frame rate?
Jon McKellan: We’re still looking at what we can do with Pro, but there will definitely be an improvement in many ways. I don’t want to confirm anything yet, but we’re seeing some great results.
"We’re pushing it as much as we can to deliver a ‘AAA’ quality visual experience, and as a small team, that’s quite hard. I’m really happy with where it is at just now though, and will only get better as we optimize and finish the game."
How is the game running on the original PS4, frame rate and resolution wise?
Jon McKellan: It’s looking good! We’re pushing it as much as we can to deliver a ‘AAA’ quality visual experience, and as a small team, that’s quite hard. I’m really happy with where it is at just now though, and will only get better as we optimize and finish the game. This is our first console game (as No Code) so there is a lot of quick-learning happening here, but we’re working quite closely with Unity too and that’s been really helpful.