If the seminal sci-fi film Blade Runner and dystopian literary classic Nineteen Eighty-Four had a video game baby, it would be Observer: System Redux. Set in a decrepit apartment building in futuristic Poland, Observer incorporates familiar science fiction and cyberpunk themes in a way that feels both deferential and distinct from its clear inspirations. Part detective story, part psychological horror, Observer is the kind of game you’ll want to play with the lights off and headphones on. It does a great job of building tension just by using its environments and ambient sounds, though a few out-of-place (and thankfully infrequent) stealth sections can sometimes cause more aggravation than fear.
Originally released as Observer in 2017, System Redux is an enhanced version of the base game with improved graphics and additional story content. The year is 2084, and Poland has been ravaged by the nanophage, a digital plague resulting in widespread drug use, body modification, and the watchful rule of governing megacorporation Chiron. The first-person perspective puts you in the hardened gumshoes of Dan Lazarski, an Observer – basically a police detective who can hack into people’s minds. As Dan, you’ll investigate crime scenes, examine clues, and trawl a creepy, locked down tenement building in order to solve a series of murders and reunite with your long-lost son.
Observer: System Redux – 7 Screenshots
Observer: System Redux doesn’t shy away from its sci-fi, cyberpunk, and horror influences. Lazarski is voiced by the now late Rutger Hauer, whose “tears in the rain” monologue from Blade Runner deserves a spot in the dystopian fiction hall of fame. There are multiple references to the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as well, including finding physical copies of the book throughout the apartment building, and stumbling upon Easter eggs like this is always a delight. Despite the familiar themes, Observer never feels derivative; it’s more of a love letter to the works that came before than an imitation.
Being a cybernetically enhanced Observer, Dan Lazarski has a few extra tools at his disposal: he can use EM Vision to analyze electronic equipment, Bio Vision to identify biological materials like blood, and Night Vision to make dark spaces like the building’s creepy basement easier to navigate. You’ll use these abilities to track down whoever’s murdering the building’s tenants, sometimes following a literal trail of blood in your quest to stop the killer and find Dan’s son. Oh, and you can plug into a chip in dead people’s brains to explore their memories, like you do.
Observer is proof that you don’t always need a monster to make a game scary.
These “dream eater” sequences keep the derelict apartment setting from ever feeling too claustrophobic. They’re not an exact replication of the victims’ memories, but more of a trippy reenactment that mashes together different environments and art styles. There’s a lot left up to interpretation, which can be said for much of the larger story as well. For example, you have the option to make Dan take his medication whenever his vitals are in the red, but you’re never told why – or what happens if you don’t. Observer never holds your hand or answers every question, and your choices will have a very real effect on how you see the world around you and even how it all ends.
Unlike many games in the survival horror genre, Observer: System Redux doesn’t use violent combat or “run and hide” mechanics (for the most part) to create a creepy atmosphere. Most of the gameplay focuses on exploration and contextual interactions with the world around you, much like Gone Home or What Remains of Edith Finch. Observer is proof that you don’t always need the threat of a sword-dragging physical manifestation of guilt or a nine-foot-tall vampire lady to make a game scary (although those clearly work too). It doesn’t rely on cheap jump scares, instead creating a building sense of dread through the environ