AI-in-space caper Observation is about haunting yourself

April 30, 2019
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Observation is trying to do something very complex, and if I feel, at times, like it’s failing, I’m also not quite sure what “success”, in this case, might look like. If I did, I suspect my ideas about existence in general would be rather different. The work of Glasgow-based Stories Untold developer No Code, the game casts you as an AI, SAM, aboard a damaged orbiting space station around seven years from now. In casting you as that AI, it also marks the point at which SAM ceases to be SAM and becomes something… else, a hybrid of human and machine traits, the player’s curiosity and clumsiness mixed in with the AI’s hitherto automated systems and procedures.

You struggle awake in darkness, starlight slashing remorselessly across a cabin hung with dust and components as the station spins in the aftermath of a mysterious collision. A woman is calling your name, her terrified face bleached by what you realise, with a start, is the light given off by displays and indicators that are, in some sense, “you”. Announcing herself as Emma Fisher, she orders you to accept her voiceprint and give her access to the station’s network, so she can work out what the hell has gone wrong. The trouble is, her voice doesn’t match the print from your databanks. This creates the first of many introspective dilemmas, as you wrestle with the tension between what your mechanical faculties are telling you and the ideas and biases you bring with you, as the ghost forced into this machine.

“You can see that it looks like a glitch. An AI would reject it,” observes No Code’s co-founder and creative director John McKellan. “But a human would say, ‘well, she sounds trustworthy, so I’ll accept her’.” The question of whether Emma is who she says she is, in other words, is also the question of who and what you are. “We wanted to create this sense of ‘I’m meant to be in the walls’ – I feel like I’m in the walls, like I’m the system, but the point is that right from the get-go, that’s not your role,” McKellan continues. “You’re being asked to do that, but feeling like that’s not your job anymore.” Emma herself begins the game unconscious of your turmoil; as far as she’s concerned, any delays or wayward actions on your part are errors brought on by the collision. This lumbers you with an unspoken second layer of objectives, on top of unravelling the enigma of your own being: either playing along with Emma, so that she doesn’t begin to mistrust you and heaven forbid, try to deactivate you, or finding ways to communicate that you are not the mindless bundle of algorithms she takes you for.

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