Observation is a sci-fi experience from developers No Code, the studio behind the provocative Stories Untold. A depth of detail and the adept construction of characters creates a game that is more than just adventure, but a visceral and oftentimes spine-tingling experience. Gameplay is rife with passive lore, and part of the replayability factor lies in a frequently conflicted desire to pursue the truth or the unknown—Do you prioritize the mystery? Or why you’re in this circumstance in the first place? For the most part, the game doesn’t prevent the player from answering both questions in a single playthrough; however, this approach takes time. Now the question is: Does time matter?
Considering Observation refers to quantum theory a lot, including an actual device called “quantum comms,” it makes sense if time and space matter even in the mechanics of the game. Toward the end, when Sam and Emma begin their descent (maybe in more ways than one), numbers and codes in Sam’s protocols seem to change between players and playthroughs. This can easily be chalked up to regular procedural generation of puzzles; but, for a single 20-30 minute sequence, why?
In a large, puzzle-focused game, like Myst or The Witness, the appeal of procedural generation is understandable. The main objective for the player is to solve puzzles while the story is secondary motivation and icing on the cake; so, randomization ensures the core gameplay remains fresh. However, Observation’s core gameplay is more narratively driven, and the puzzles encountered during the majority of the game (namely hatch codes and laptop pins) do not change, emphasizing the differences in the end all the more.
The variation of one puzzle might be explained by a simple game metric: completion time. No Code’s attention to detail not only creates a vibrant environment, but also extrapolates on current science to make a more believable space experience. So, the Observation space station is traveling in orbit around Saturn for a number of hours, and the planet, itself, is turning. The reason the storm doesn’t shift with the planet’s rotation and remains visible to the station is because it’s located at a pole. Picture the station’s orbit as a very thin ring around the top of Saturn. Trajectory parameters to reach the center of the storm then naturally change depending on where the station is in its orbit, which depends on when the player reaches the endgame and starts their descent. Space and time in space! But, this doesn’t explain why the jettison codes change.
So, let’s get quantum, let’s get hectic! All players are represented by the quantum iterations of Emma on the ground. The game is potentially poking fun at the idea that players might complete the game concurrently, a concept especially visible in the age of Twitch when Streamer A is streaming the game at the same time as Streamer B. But, the game also makes it clear that it’s following a very specific sort of Emma who makes it to the ending; thus, this might explain why the astronaut IDs and pins don’t change. They’re tied to the astronauts’ life experiences that led to this moment.
SAM, however, is different because he’s a synthetic creation. He could be constructed in a multitude of ways so long as a divergence still occurs in his learning. This divergence is potentially activated by the marker, and that’s where the game starts, where, we, the player take on SAM’s newfound agency.
The key to the variation in the jettison codes is that, unlike the IDs, pins, and hatch codes, they are solely used by SAM. Because they’re never meant to be mechanically entered by a human, these codes are likely machine generated. Also, because these codes have no direct impact on SAM’s identity or learning, it’s fine that they’re random. So, the quantum nature of SAM’s experience is possibly highlighted in these different codes.
No Code has crafted a phenomenal journey of space and time in space and time. Observation is a dizzying experience that creatively explores building characters and extrapolating ideas. Although there are many mixed views regarding the ending, the consensus is that the game not only makes you think, but encourages you to wonder.