Observer Review — Son of a Glitch

by Jed Pressgrove

Despite having one of the dumbest-sounding monikers among developers, Bloober Team delivered a visually dynamic punch with Layers of Fear. In that 2016 game, you explore an ever-transforming family home, which represents the mental and emotional instability of the husband/father protagonist. Observer, Bloober Team’s latest effort, features similar tricks — corridors that morph when you turn around, doors and cabinets that open by themselves, and so on — as you traverse people’s minds as a detective of the future. But while the setting of Layers of Fear effectively puts one in the shoes of a frustrated male artist, good luck feeling like an investigator of a fresh case in Observer, as much of the imagery you scan is hackneyed and contrived.

In Observer, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a cyborg policeman who searches brains, not just crime scenes, for clues. After receiving a distressed phone call from his son, Lazarski finds a decapitated body in his son’s apartment and sets out to explain this murder and locate his missing offspring. From here you question a variety of tenants, many of whom are on drugs. Here and there, you must pop a pill yourself to correct Lazarski’s vision, which starts glitching after a certain amount of investigation. Drug dependence, a common neo-noir topic, paints the hero as a vulnerable figure in a decadent society.

As in Metroid Prime, technology allows you to to view your surroundings via different lenses to detect important details, but Observer wants the trips you take inside of people’s heads to carry the most weight. In this respect, it’s understandable that Bloober Team presents the mind as a messy place where memories and insecurities translate as strange and shifting sights to Lazarski. Observer is at its best when Lazarski’s own history influences what he sees and hears in another person’s brain — when the human condition conflicts with the goal of objective observation.

The problem is these psychological dives often come across as assembly-line horror. With many scenes that recall the hallways in Layers of Fear, Observer gives off the vibe of a cookie-cutter sequel rather than that of a distinct story. The worst decision by Bloober Team is the inclusion of stealth segments that bring to mind a number of survival-horror titles, such as Outlast 2. These sequences suggest journeying into a mind is the stuff of cliched trial-and-error game design, not to mention that they seem irrelevant to the story Observer wants to tell.

Game-breaking bugs on the PlayStation 4 worsened my experience with Observer considerably. Within a few hours, the screen froze twice, and more than once a glitch rendered an essential puzzle-solving item unusable. I’ve observed enough: if a sci-fi game has something to say about the effects of technology, the least it can do is work right.

Doki Doki Literature Club! Review — Male-Pattern Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Dan Salvato wants to upend lighthearted cliches with Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel in which you play as a boy who joins a high school lit club comprised of four girls. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, the character types, such as an overtly shy girl, will be instantly recognizable, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of Japanese cartoons to see through Salvato’s basic gimmick: get the player to grind through loads and loads of cutesy dialogue so that when things like suicide and profanity come into the picture, the player will be shocked.

Salvato’s failure as a writer is two-fold. First, he insists on rejecting anime/manga cliches with other cliches, the biggest of which is the idea that girls — or does Salvato think or say “females” in that male taxidermist way? — are crazy, dangerous bitches who can’t control their attraction to boys (for more sexist perspective, play Sam Barlow’s overrated Her Story). Regardless of whether you give the protagonist a male or female name, you see the events of the game unfold as a boy observing the insanity of the opposite sex. But Salvato doesn’t treat this standpoint as an aspect of immaturity or growing up. Instead, he presents his narrative as an adult story, with unexpected darkness designed to make hipster gamers go “Whoa,” and I’m being kind with the use of “unexpected”: the game literally tells you it’s disturbing before you even start playing, thus defeating its whole (admittedly shallow) purpose.

The second limitation of Salvato’s approach is a trendy reliance on meta nonsense, such as rewinds, save-file shenanigans, glitchy visuals, and more. Doki Doki Literature Club! features such things to amplify the uneasiness of the player, but indie trash like Pony Island and Undertale regularly utilizes the same or similar devices. Doki Doki Literature Club!’s fashionable trickery is especially unimpressive in light of Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata, which uses game-isms like new game plus and “buggy” static to illuminate the horror of two factions on the brink of genocide.

Video-game discourse often misses the fact that independent developers, despite being removed from a mass market that specializes in objectionable content, are just as capable as any of propagating longstanding prejudice. With Doki Doki Literature Club!, it might be tempting for some to dismiss this concern as heavy-handed; they might say Salvato is doing all of this in the name of horror. If that really is the case, I wonder how anyone could be scared of familiar, self-commenting filth.