The Virtual Life – Searching For Absolution In Observer
Observer, the latest game from the spooky folks over at Bloober Team, just released yesterday. It's a fantastic combination of sci-fi and horror that I urge everyone to check out. You can read my review for the game here. I'm going to be talking about the game's plot in detail here and dissecting its themes so uh MAJOR SPOILERS. Turn back now if you haven't played the game. Seriously.
Still here? Ok. Let's get to it.
Observer fits quite nicely into its grimy Cyberpunk box. It's a game that tackles all the familiar themes and tropes of the genre: evil corporations and the rebels who rise up to fight them, the horrific body politics of cybernetic augmentations, the crushing mental weight that technology can have on a single human being. However, where Observer deviates in an interesting fashion is with its horror lineage and focuses on a theme that many horror stories deal with: absolution.
The game begins with protagonist Daniel Lazarsk, an Observer (a detective that can jack into people's mental implants and explore their minds in order to obtain clues and information), receiving a distress call from his estranged son, Adam. It's clear the two haven't spoken in many years due to some unspecified and traumatic incident. The call is cut short and Daniel traces it to a a run down apartment complex called "The Stacks." Stepping inside, he begins his search for his son, which takes him through both a physical labyrinth as well as one of the mind, and they're both horrific and lined with death and despair.
Everyone in Observer is seeking some form of absolution. Amir, the first dying person you jack into, was once a convicted drug dealer. Once he gets out, he spends the rest of his days searching for a 9-to-5 in order to make a living and have a decent life with his wife, Helena. However, Observer's future is, of course, run by corporations that have everyone's records on file and they're generally not forgiving. Amir drifts from job to job, unable to escape his past. He and Helena eventually turn to biochemical experimentation that results in creating a monster, quite literally a manifestation of both Amir's sins and the sins of mankind meddling with the future, that kills both of them in a tragic Frankensteinian fashion.
Daniel and Adam's search for absolution runs parallel to Amir's. As Daniel searches through the minds of victims he comes across, his own memories get tangled up in the experience, showing us his troubled past. Way before the events of the game, Daniel's wife had a terminal illness. She could have been saved with cybernetic implants but Daniel, against body augmentation, warns her not to, telling her that her body will never be hers again if she does. She dies, telling him to take care of Adam, "no matter the cost." Later on, Daniel's injured in the line of duty and willingly accepts cybernetic implants, becoming an Observer, in order to keep his promise to his wife to take care of Adam. Adam, however, is filled with resentment that his father let his mother die but was willing to save himself, calling Daniel "a coward." The two don't speak. Adam grows up to become a hacker dedicated to taking down the corporation that rules over Poland, Chiron, and starts delving into research on how to extend human life into the digital realm.
Everything comes to ahead during the endgame. Daniel finds Adam's dismembered head on a table in the basement and immediately falls to the ground in despair. However, suddenly he hears Adam speaking to him via wireless communication and eventually discovers that his son is still alive...kind of. Making his way to a terminal in a nearby Chiron office, Daniel accesses it and then reunites with Adam, presented as a HORRIFIC FLOATING CYBERNETIC FLESH SKULL THING, in cyberspace. The two talk. Adam, still traumatized by his mother's death, reveals his plans to make eternal life a possibility for everyone by essentially backing everybody up to cloud computing. However, he is in fact physically dead in real life. He needs a body to inhabit and serve as a passenger. And that passenger is Daniel.
From here, the player has a choice. Do they accept Adam in his body so that the two will share the same mind forever and ever and that Adam can continue to exist? Or does Daniel, horrified by what his son has become, switch him off? It's here that Observer's cybernetic idea of absolution is brought forth in all its complicated glory. How do we save ourselves? How do we free ourselves from the shackles of our sins and being human? Can we rid ourselves of masters? Is Death the only way?
Observer offers no easy answers to this and, like many great works of art, leaves it up to your interpretation. However, since Observer is an interactive experience, it also lets you live out that choice and see the consequences of you how you try and find peace. In this way, Observer gets away from the usual thematic focus of rebels vs corporations and focuses on a more general theme, while still having the trapping of Cyberpunk, that's emotionally resonant and if it stands the test of time, I think it will be because of that strong emotional core more than any of its jump scares or mind-bending sequences.
For more on Observer, check out our list of top 10 cyberpunk games of all time.