Guest post: Peter J. Kenvin's analysis of Observer
"Observer represents a whole new level of uniqueness." - Peter J. Kenvin
Occasionally on “when hope writes” I’ll publish guest posts by brilliant artists and writers. If you want to be a guest blogger on my Substack, please connect with me on LinkedIn or my website.
Today I’m sharing a thoughtful analysis of Observer by the wonderful philosopher, writer, illustrator, and YouTuber Peter J. Kenvin.
Observer: System Redux analysis
Made by Bloober Team, the developers responsible for Layers of Fear, an unusual game in and of itself, Observer represents a whole new level of uniqueness. The story surrounds Dan Lazarski, the player character, played by Rutger Hauer. Lazarski is an Observer—a Polish police officer who has cybernetic enhancements that let him see in the dark and detect sources of electromagnetic radiation as well as biological information about corpses and bodily fluids. He also has another enhancement: he can enter people’s minds with a device called The Dream Eater. Essentially, he can plug directly into a person’s subconscious mind, as an aid to interrogation for instance. If someone has died, he can enter the mind of the corpse to get some idea of how they died. For his job as a policeman, in the case of a murder victim, he can also try to see who may have killed the person using the device. Because it’s the subconscious mind he’s working with, many of the environments accessed through The Dream Eater are almost hallucinogenic and heavy on symbolism, making the experience of playing the game indescribable at times, and it’s amazing from a visual standpoint.
As for the story, it starts off fairly mundane. Lazarski gets called to a block of apartments, supposedly by his estranged son, Adam. He travels to the apartment block, at which point there is a lockdown—a terrifying prospect in the world of the game because of the Nanophage, a disease that can affect people’s cybernetic augmentations, essentially driving them insane. As players, we end up going to one of the apartments and Lazarski finds a body, possibly that of his son. There’s no head to go with the body however, so The Dream Eater can’t be used to find out what happened to this person or their identity—at least not definitively. We look around the rooms, gathering evidence, finally unlocking and making our way out of the apartment.
It transpires that Adam works for a tech firm called Chiron, and we learn throughout the game that he’s working on a project to upload his essence into cyberspace. But a virus gets unleashed and chaos ensues. Throughout the story, people get killed. A woman who was acting as a courier for Adam and a tattoo artist that was also a surgeon of sorts who implanted cyber technology into others to “enhance” them being two of the most notable. The killer turns out to be a man who was weak as a child, became obsessed with wolves and got cyber-augmentation to give him lupine characteristics—the strength, claws and speed of a wolf. By the end of the story, we discover that Adam’s project succeeded. He created a digital “iteration” of himself that is responsible for setting the wolf man loose on the people who helped him reach his goal, basically cutting loose ends. He also kills his own biological self because Adam worked out how dangerous the digital version of himself could be, and it was this biological self that released the virus to try and destroy the digital iteration. At the end of the game, we have the choice to either allow the digital version of Adam to take over his mind and body or take Lazarski by force, leaving him to die as the batteries on his cybernetic augmentations run down.
The real point of the game is largely tied up in everything surrounding the primary narrative. For example, we learn that Lazarski lost his wife many years before, after convincing her not to have implants which may have saved her life because he believed they would change her. She dies and something happens to Lazarski, resulting in him needing implants to survive. He accepts the surgery, which his son sees as hypocritical. At this point, their already unstable relationship breaks down and they become estranged. Lazarski still loves his son and wants to believe he can repair the relationship, even if it’s with a digital version of Adam. So he goes to find him, eventually resulting in the choice mentioned above. He can embrace what Adam has become, hoping there’s something left of his son in the digital iteration and allowing him to use his body as a host, combining both their minds. Or he can reject him, which causes digital Adam to take over Lazarski’s body by force, leaving him to die.
The main way we learn about the ins and outs of the father and son relationship is through The Dream Eater. When Lazarski uses the device and enters a person’s subconscious, be it a living person or a dead body—which he does several times, even though it’s illegal—his own repressed memories come to the surface. He remembers his wife, her death, his son as a child, the reaction his son has to his mother’s death, the resentment, the later hatred the biological Adam has for his father, and more. We also learn about why and how the wolf man, Victor, became the killer he ends up being. He was weak physically as a child, his father was abusive. To cope with the abuse Victor developed an obsession with wolves, resulting in him going insane. As a young man he had extensive cybernetic surgery and started killing people.
While the story and the father and son relationship are the real essence of the game, there’s so much more to it, particularly the setting enlightens the players about the game’s universe as a whole. Essentially World War Three, or “The Big One,” has decimated much of the world, enabling corporations such as Chiron take over the government of Poland. The character of Janus who runs the apartment block where most of the game takes place fought in the war himself. In many ways he embodies what’s left of the society; he’s broken, crippled by the very technology that’s supposed to be keeping him alive.
Then there are side missions we can participate in. The tenants are scared because of the lockdown. Lockdowns are synonymous with the Nanophage. Because the disease is so transmissible, usually the entire area where an outbreak occurs is wiped out. We can choose to involve ourselves in the lives of these people through investigations; the robotic sex dolls and the woman who has an autistic daughter come to mind particularly. Then there’s Amir, the drug dealer and partner to Adam’s courier who also gets killed by the psychotic wolf man, intertwining his story with the main narrative.
The game isn’t perfect, and there are two main areas that stand out as flaws. Firstly, the subconscious visions Lazarski has are sometimes too impenetrable for their own good; meaning, you’re not always sure what is important and what is not. Secondly, there is Lazarski’s projection of how he sees himself, or perhaps of how his son sees him: grotesque, angry to the point of violence, frustrated, deformed by his implants, chasing the player character, seeking to kill them during certain sequences. While these particular moments are effective little stealth sequences, there are times they feel a little tacked on. If you fail, the game over screen reminds you that you’re still playing a game, breaking the immersive experience it seems to be striving so hard to provide.
As an English and Philosophy graduate myself, I find the ideas involved in the game fascinating. In the 1970s, the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan believed that humanity is in a sense evolving into a technological species, which influenced the director David Cronenberg to make Videodrome, possibly the director’s best work to date, and also had an impact on science-fiction more generally. Many sci-fi stories since have discussed the idea of humans and technology coming together, the body being enhanced by technology and the dangers inherent in such unity. There’s something deeply Descartian here as well—the hackneyed phrase “I think therefore I am.” If an entity can think, does it matter whether it’s flesh and blood or a digital iteration? And if not, what worth does human and indeed biological life have? Is digital life possible? And if so, could it be inherently superior, and what of concepts such as the right to life and freedom? How would we be seen by such life, given the limitations we have such as death, among others, and what of the spiritual element?
Ultimately then, I think the message of Observer is that the world is changing, and with it our concept of a single objective reality. If the virtual world can create a reality that is as immersive and functional as our own, how does that impact upon reality as we’ve always known it? And how does one measure the value of a biological life against that of a sentient artificially created intelligence in such a circumstance? There are parts of the game, mostly in the second half, that Lazarski isn’t plugged into anyone and still seems to be in another mind, another reality, suggesting what we think of as real is, at the very least, malleable. Certainly films such as Videodrome suggest that technology and our growing integration with it could warp our very reality itself. And if that’s the case, what does anything mean anymore? Furthermore, if nothing means anything definitively, does that even matter as long as the technology is there to support it? Observer is a narrative that fits neatly alongside films like Videodrome and Blade Runner and novels such as Neuromancer by William Gibson. Technology is out of the bag and seems to be evolving at least as fast as we are, our relationship with it, and particularly which side of the power dynamic we reside on, becoming ever more blurred as these developments progress. If you’re interested in sci-fi, cyber-punk or in technology more generally whether physically, philosophically, or both, I think you’ll get something out of this rather unique gaming experience.
My name is Peter J. Kenvin (the J stands for James). I am a 45-year-old man, living at home with my mum and 7 cats in South Wales in the UK. I have an undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy and Religious Studies, along with a post-grad in Computing. My interests include film, IT and writing.
Peter J. Kenvin has a YouTube channel which you should absolutely check out here. There, he narrates books, does movie reviews, shows gameplays, talks about his health, and more.
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