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New Cyberpunk Game Asks Players to Invade People’s Nightmares

‘Observer’ pits players against the trauma of strangers.

by Matthew Gault
Aug 18 2017, 2:00pm

Image: Aspyr

Amir is dying in front of me. There's blood all over his apartment and he's barely aware of his surroundings. I ask him who did this and he tries to answer, but only bloody wheezes get past his lips. It's alright though, I've got other ways to get the information I need.

I pull a cable from the dream eater on my right hand, cradle Amir's head, find the port on the back of his neck, and jack into his mind. Our consciousnesses merge and I'm wandering the fragmented, broken nightmares of a dying man. I need to see the moment he was attacked, but to get there, I'll have to navigate his nightmares. The longer I stay, the more my own memories bleed into his. If I'm in his head too long, I'll lose all sense of where Amir ends and I begin.

This scene takes place in the early hours of Observer, a new cyberpunk horror game from Polish developer Bloober Team SA—the indie developers behind Layers of Fear. Observer puts you in the shoes of Dan Lazarski, a corporate detective who specializes in neural interrogation.

He's a leech—a person with the tech and the temerity to jack directly into unwilling people's minds and steal information. People in the world of Observer fear leeches because they tend to go crazy after rummaging around in the brains of society's criminals. As players move through the game, they watch Lazarski 's sanity unfurl as he slams corporation-approved mood stabilizers to manage his fragile mental state and keep reality in perspective.

It's not a "walking simulator" and it's not an adventure game. There are jump scares, psychological horror, puzzles, detective work, and dialogue trees—but no combat to speak of, and few consequences beyond Lazarski's slow descent into madness. Players explore their surroundings to move the story forward. The first case puts the detective in a tenement building rooting through the apartment of a dead hacker with a missing head. You scan the body for trauma, look for hidden panels, and open drawers searching for clues.

It's a good game elevated by its amazing sense of place and Rutger Hauer. Cypberpunk icon Hauer is the man who played Roy Batty in Blade Runner and delivered everyone's favorite monologue about tears and rain. In Observer, his likeness and voice lend weight to Lazarski. His noir-style monologues, gritty voice, and subdued performance made me imagine what Blade Runner would have been like with Hauer as Deckard instead of Harrison Ford.

Hauer is great but the main draw to Observer is its story and setting. The game takes place in Krakow, Poland in 2084. After a terrible digital plague called the nanophage wiped out most of the population, East fought West in a massive war that killed most people on Earth. One of the few places left relatively untouched was Poland, where a new "republic" organized around a megacorp and quickly took power.

Lazarski exists in this world as a leech—feeding off the dreams of the destitute—but the sudden reappearance of his missing son humanizes him.

Observer's Krakow is as hellish as you'd imagine a city run by corporation to be. Trash litters the streets, dayglow advertisements assault you at every turn, and tech-junkies addicted to strange drugs quiver in dark alleys. Boomer Team SA nailed the high-tech, low-life atmosphere.

The way Observer tells that story is excellent. As Lazarski works cases, he's also chasing after that missing son. But it's also possible that the detective's son is dead and the leech is just beginning to lose himself. Every stroll through the memories of a suspect teases out bits of his past until his official cases and his personal story blend together and Lazarski and the player are both so disoriented they have trouble telling what's real and what's not.

A stranger's dream is a great place to set a horror game. Dreams are personal and strange and often only make sense to the dreamer. Entering, and even watching, the dreams of another person is an old fiction trope, one science is getting closer to making a reality.