When it comes to psychological horror games with a deeply atmospheric surreal bent, few can match Bloober Team. Layers of Fear and Layers of Fear 2 are fine examples of that, delving as they do into the fractured psyche of an artist and filmmaker, respectively, but Observer might just be the studio’s strongest work. If that wasn’t the case with its original release in 2017, then Observer: System Redux —a next-gen remaster that dials up the atmosphere, adds new story elements to help flesh out the game’s world, and introduces some quality-of-life improvements—most certainly is.
Taking place in Krakow, Poland in 2084, Observer envisions a bleak cyberpunk dystopia where being directly plugged into a neural network is the norm, but a digital plague has wiped out much of the population, instigated a devastating war, and allowed the megacorporation Chiron to take control of Poland. The population is strictly divided into classes—if you’re deemed to be an upstanding citizen you’ll get to live in relative ease as Class A or B, but for the drug and hologram addicts that society would rather forget, Class C means a life locked away in rundown apartment blocks.
Daniel Lazarski is a detective within the Krakow Police Department’s “Observer” unit, specialising in neural investigation. With a special device called the Dream Eater, Observers can hack into people’s brains and view their memories—a decidedly invasive form of interrogation, but in technofascist 2084 Poland, that’s just the way things roll. Daniel’s world turns upside down when he gets a distressed call from his estranged son, Adam, leading him to a Class C complex—the Stacks—for a much more personal investigation.
Observer hits all the usual cyberpunk tropes: you’ve got a corporate oligarchy ruling over all, internet-connected brains, body augmentation as a norm, omnipresent augmented reality tech, and neon signs lighting up the grimy, rain-drenched streets below. But more than any other game I’ve played in a long time, Observer never forgets to put the “punk” in “cyberpunk”—a genre built on criticising the unchecked power of corporations exploring the existential quandaries of transhumanism, that too often winds up just getting lost in “cool” technology and flashing lights.
In taking place almost entirely within the Stacks, Observer never comes close to the temptation of glamorising its vision of the future. Yes, augmented reality is a constant presence, but it’s mostly used as a quick, cheap, unsubtle way of pasting over the building’s rundown state—why actually fix a broken wall when you can just cover it with a hologram of an intact one? But even those holograms are glitchy and unstable—why waste the better, newer tech on a lowly slum? Yes, virtual reality can be a nice escape, but when you’re living in such bleak circumstances and VR tech is so readily accessible, it’s easy to become lost in it and lose your connection to the real world.
Observer channels many of the common visual motifs of the cyberpunk genre, but uses them to paint a decidedly bleak vision of the future. Unchecked technological development comes at a cost, and in the Stacks, you can see those costs laid bare.
Daniel’s investigation starts as a fairly routine one, albeit with a more personal motivation. He assumes the worst when he finds a dead body in Adam’s apartment, but after identifying the victim as someone else, he proceeds with what he does best: detective work—knocking on doors, questioning neighbours, using AR tech to help inspect crime scenes, diving into people’s memories. But as the case gets more intense and the bodies start piling up, he has to start taking more drastic measures, like hacking into the minds of the deceased—a dangerous move that’s strictly forbidden, even for Observers. Fragmented, distorted memories can mess with one’s psyche and make it hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.
That brings us to the horror at the heart of Observer, as Daniel’s perception becomes increasingly (and terrifyingly) warped. The surreal nature of dream-eating is unsettling enough to begin with, but it only gets more so as the memories that Daniel witnesses grow more bizarre and the line between those memories and the real world gets blurred. Observer has a few moments of tense stalker horror as you try to avoid a monster that keeps showing up in the memories that Daniel visit, but it’s at its most terrifying when there’s no immediate “threat” as such, and the weight of the twisted atmosphere completely envelops you. It’s not a game that wants to make you jump out of your seat, but drop a pit of dread in your stomach and just let it fester for a few hours.
Observer draws on this fractured-mind premise to delve into that timeless cyberpunk theme: what does it mean to be “human” when you can so easily embody someone else through their memories? When you can augment your whole body away? When you can live your entire life in virtual reality? These are always fascinating and scary topics to explore, and Observer manages to impart some of that existential dread on players with a level of impact I haven’t seen since SOMA.
But Observer takes that question one further: who gets to decide what it means to be “human”? Through the details of Daniel’s ongoing investigation, the history that gradually unfurls between him and Adam, and the numerous little side stories that help add context to the world, there’s a recurring focus on who is making those decisions. What does it mean for someone’s humanity when they knowingly and wilfully augment themselves, versus an augment that’s forced on them or that they’ve been coerced into accepting? How does consent factor into this whole existential question? What does this mean for coercion on a societal level, where there may not be an individual actor forcing your hand but you’ve grown up in a situation that makes augmentation, or body-swapping, or permanent migration to virtual reality seem like the only course left? The way that Observer raises these questions and explores these ideas is masterful.
All of the above is as true for the original Observer as it is for System Redux, but the remaster finds plenty of opportunities to make a much bigger impact. Most significant, at least for the PlayStation 5 version, is the use of the DualSense controller’s feedback mechanisms. Observer is a game that already relies so much on sensory overload to convey its ideas and build tension, and haptic feedback and adaptive triggers add another layer to that. Things like a jolt of trigger resistance as you turn a stiff door handle or uncomfortable tingly sensation as you plug in to someone’s neural link might seem like little things individually, but they all come together to help thicken the game’s atmosphere even further. When you add a substantial graphical overhaul to this, you’ve got a game that is—somewhat ironically, given the theme—easy to lose yourself in.
Observer: System Redux has also got some welcome tweaks to smooth over the more frustrating aspects of the original, particularly around stealth. In Observer, those intermittent stealth sections could be a tedious trial-and-error effort that completely undermined the atmosphere that the rest of the game worked so hard to build. Nothing reminds you that you’re just playing a game like hitting Continue for the dozenth time. Observer: System Redux has a revamped stealth system that doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but gives you more control—you can better predict what’s likely to get you spotted, letting you better plan your route. In some ways, it makes those moments even more tense; it feels like there’s more at stake, somehow, when you’re not just brute-forcing your way through a clumsy stealth system.
The improvements take what was already an exceptional game and push it over the edge to being a genuine masterpiece. Observer: System Redux is a cyberpunk game that hasn’t forgotten what “cyberpunk” actually means. Through its surreal atmosphere and psychological exploration, it offers a terrifying glimpse into a future of unchecked corporatism, technofascist rule, and the existential dread of a world where you might have no say in what it means to be “you”.
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.