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The Real-Life Biotech in Bloober Team’s ‘Observer’

I recently had the opportunity to play Bloober Team’s latest game, Observer—a fantastic game for those who are interested in cyberpunk.

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I recently had the opportunity to play Bloober Team’s latest game, Observer—a fantastic game for those who are interested in cyberpunk. The world-building in it is the strongest I’ve seen among any piece of sci-fi—and I read a lot of sci-fi.

The main thing I love and hate about cyberpunk is a lot of the tech we see referenced in those works are in real-life development. While these works are still somewhat fictional in nature, they are often a foreboding of our future should we misuse the tech we create. We see this in novels like Neuromancer and in many other novels, films, and games that have come out in the last few decades. Cyberpunk is a special kind of dystopia, one in which mega corporations may control society, but also one that we created with the intention to benefit humanity.

The idea of cybernetic enhancements and genetic engineering both amaze and terrify me, and that has lead me to speculate on the future outcomes of real life research in my own work.

Observer, for me, is the most recently created fictional world that captures that sense of foreboding. I’ve never been a fantasy person, not because I don’t like escapism, but because it’s a genre that I feel teaches us the least about where our own society is headed. If you look to science fiction, and all the sub-genres that branch from it, you’ll find the most potent commentary about humanity.

And the technology presented in Observer is more of a reality than many of us realize.

Warning: This article contains game spoilers.

The moment you discover the doctor’s basement lair it illuminates exactly how he is growing and selling organs to people on the black market. Around a corner, there is a bloated big with large lumps of excess growth protruding from multiple points around its body. A virtual reality headset covers its eyes. It squeals in panic, large globs of saliva dripping from its mouth as it cries. During the lockdown, a power surge interrupted the VR program that was keeping the pig sedated and, I assume, that it’s acutely aware of the organ farm growing inside of it; from the doctors notes, you’ll discover that multiple human kidneys, livers, hearts, and lungs are being grown or are nearly fully grown inside the pig. You have two options: reactivate the VR or put the pig out of its misery.

Of course, in Observer, these organic organs are being sold to people who want to replace the artificial ones in their bodies—which is tied to a loosely referenced “remove your implants” movement in the game in response to a lethal nanophage. In the real world, a biotech start-up by the name of eGensis is just one of several companies using CRISPR technology to make pig organs suitable for humans to help alleviate the shortage of transplant organs. In an article in Science, they explain why humans reject pig organs and what genes they need to change in the pig organs to make them suitable for transplant. Their research combines gene editing and cloning, which has seen amazing advancements in recent years, but eGenesis’ work is still experimental and unpredictable.

Observer_Tatoo+shopSpeaking of genetic alteration, this is another scientific advancement that is also touched on in Observer. The Wolfman character underwent various genetic changes to turn himself from a human into the classic horror character he greatly admires. When you scan his blood, you are told there are abnormal alternations in his DNA, and you find out later that he was going to a genetic splicing lab to have his DNA altered to become a werewolf—and would send his family photographic updates of his transition, freaking them out in the process.

Scientists are making many advancements with the CRISPR technology itself where genetic engineering is concerned. As the Broad Institute notes, the term CRISPR is used loosely to refer to the “various CRISPR-Cas9 and -CPF1, (and other) systems that can be programmed to target specific stretches of genetic code and to edit DNA at precise locations.” This means that researchers can permanently modify genes in living cells and organisms. CRISPR-Cas9 is currently the most efficient and customizable alternative to other genome editing tools. In 2015, a US biotechnology company called OvaScience announced plans to apply CRISPR to human embryos, as noted in the MIT technology Review. Their goal? To correct genetic mutations before they generate your child.

Observer_BicycleOf course, this application is different than splicing human DNA with that of a wolf, but if scientists are trying to make pig organs suitable for human transplant by altering their DNA or ejecting pig embryos with human cells to achieve the same end-goal, who’s to say that we won’t figure out, at some point, how to alter our human biology and physiology? As New Scientist reveals, there are as many as 20 human CRISPR trials starting around the world at the moment. They say one of these trials will “involve the first-ever attempt to use CRISPR to edit cells while they are inside the body” and that the aim is to prevent cervical cancer cells. Most current gene editing and gene therapy research involves treating illnesses and diseases, which can be seen a noble pursuit of science, but what happens once we achieve that goal?

An underlying yet serious issue in the world of Observer is the nanophage, a virus that infects those with cybernetic augmentations that can be contracted both digitally and biologically. Once it has fully taken hold of someone, they are beyond help and will eventually die. This virus causes the nanobots (nano-machines that were programmed to aid in the merge of cybernetics and living tissue) to attack the host organism. This virus doesn’t sound like too far a stretch of the imagination, so without being too much of an alarmist, maybe we should just stop while we’re ahead. The lore of the game mentions that without nanobots, cybernetic augmentations would not be possible. Would that be true in real life?

Observer_ChurchIn the real world, people have already successfully implanted external devices into their bodies—Neil Harbisson is one of those people. He was born with total colorblindness but had an antenna-like sensor implanted in his head to translate different wavelengths into vibrations on his skull. So, in effect, he hears and feels color, and has upgraded his antenna to “see” in infrared and UV. In an interview with National Geographic, he says that “such technological augmentation is natural, and maybe even necessary, strategy for humans to adapt to an uncertain future.” This is often the underlying pinnacle of ethics and morals in cyberpunk, Observer included; the game features some characters who choose to live as Immaculates—people who don’t alter their bodies with cybernetic enhancements. Others, fearing the nanophage, had their implants removed.

Harbisson didn’t need nanobots, but I don’t think his cybernetic enhancement works in the same way we often see in science fiction. The way that nanobots have been traditionally portrayed in science fiction, is that they can be an unstoppable force—a microscopic horror that attacks you from the inside out like the venom of a brown recluse spider. The nanobots from The Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation work this way, taking over many host functions and assimilating the host into The Borg collective. The nanobots in the TV show Revolution were designed to heal wounds, among other things, but their programming was disrupted; they multiplied out of control and caused an entire global meltdown by destroying any and all forms of electricity. Other shows like the X-Files have dealt with the nanobot phenomenon as well.

Observer_DanWhile nanobots aren’t a real thing, it doesn’t mean they aren’t currently being researched. The NanoRobotics Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University has, for more than ten years, been working on some forms of micro and nanotechnology. One of their current projects includes designing miniature medical robots for minimally invasive interventions and diagnosis. These scientists are not the only ones to join in on the nanobot revolution. Drexel University engineers, for instance, recently developed a method to electrically control bacteria-powered robots. Nanotechnology is happening; will we see it in our lifetimes?

On a somewhat lighter note, throughout your time spent questioning residents behind their locked doors in Observer, you will converse with a sex robot, a FemCom 6.0. It’s kind of an unsettling experience. Near the end of your conversation, the female robot makes an off-handed comment. Daniel Lazarski says, “I’d say goodbye, but I guess there’s no point,” and then the FemCom replies, “Yeah, because that would humanize me.” Daniel asks, “What did you say?” and the FemCom backtracks on her comment, saying, “Please feel free to use me.”

Without delving too much into the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of using something that looks and talks exactly like a real person solely for sex, artificial intelligence is a bit more fact than fiction at this point in time. Google is developing AI technologies. Facebook recently had to shut down its AI program after it created its own language and was communicating with itself in that language. Maybe because of science fiction we have a greater sense of caution surrounding this kind of technology, but that’s not stopping us from trying to develop it for various uses.

What does this have to do with sexbots? Well, there have been articles published in tabloids about future armies of sex robots being hacked to murder their owners in their sleep. It’s a laughable concept, mainly for the fact that tabloids are publishing this, but it’s a great concept for a novel. In fact, there have been several stories already written that deal with android or AI uprisings, like The Matrix, I, Robot, and the upcoming video game Detroit: Become Human. If we somehow figure out how to combine artificial intelligence with humanity, we run the risk of, at the very least, hurting the feelings of a FemCom who realizes she’s just being used for sex—or, worst case scenario, the entire human race gets wiped out by machines.

Observer_the+keeperScience fiction has had a not so subtle influence over the evolution of technology. E. M. Forester’s The Machine Stops, for example, was first published in 1909, yet it succinctly covers the role technology currently plays in our lives with chilling accuracy. Observer is one of the latest additions to these types of cautionary tales, and it brilliantly paints a grim picture of what our technological future could look like should we put innovation before humanity.

Joanna Nelius is a Southern California native who was raised on age-inappropriate games, yet somehow turned out alright. She has been an editor and contributor for several small gaming publications, as well as speculative fiction and academic magazines, for the last few years. When she has some free time, she usually spends it exploring abandoned buildings or watching Unsolved Mysteries—and finding good homes for her twisted horror and sci-fi stories.

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Game Reviews

‘Donkey Kong Country’ – Still As Difficult, Demanding And Amazing To This Day

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Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country: 25 Years Later

Back in 1994, Nintendo was struggling with their 16-bit Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which wasn’t selling as well as they’d hoped it would. With the release of the Saturn and Playstation on the horizon, the Super Nintendo needed a visually impressive and original title to reinforce its market dominance. After three years of intense competition and heated rivalries, Nintendo desperately needed a hit that could prove the Super NES could output graphics on the same level as the forthcoming 32-bit consoles. They teamed up with Rare to produce Donkey Kong Country, a Mario-style platformer, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Donkey Kong Country is a game held in high regard and with reason. Monumental! Monstrous! Magnificent! Use any term you want, there’s no denying how important this game was for Nintendo and Rare. The graphics for the time were above and beyond anything anyone would imagine possible for the 16-bit system. For a two-dimensional side-scroller, Donkey Kong Country conveys a three-dimensional sense of dept. The characters are fluidly animated and the rich tropical environments make use of every visual effect in the Super NES’s armory. Each stage has its own theme, forcing players to swim underwater, navigate through a misty swamp, swing from vines, or transport DK using a set of barrels (cannons) to advance. And let’s not forget the mine cart stages where you ride on rails and use your quick reflexes to successfully reach the end. Every level has little nooks and crannies too, hiding secret areas and passageways that lead to bonus games where you can earn bananas and balloons, which you can trade in for additional lives. And in Donkey Kong Country, you’re not alone; your simian sidekick Diddy tags along for the adventure. You control one character at a time, and each has his own unique strengths. Donkey Kong can dispatch larger enemies with his giant fists, while Diddy can jump a little higher than his bulky cousin. It isn’t the most original platforming feature, but it works. The two heroes can also rely on various animal friends to help guide them through their adventure. Predating Super Mario World: Yoshi’s Island, Diddy and DK can also ride on the backs of Rambi the Rhino, Winky the Frog, Enguarde the Swordfish and more!

What’s really impressive about Donkey Kong Country is how it has withstood the passage of time. In 1994, Donkey Kong Country’s visuals were spectacular with its rendered 3D models, lively character animations, detailed backgrounds, and a lush jungle setting, and while some would argue the game is dated, in my eyes it still looks great to this day. Kong has heart, and he’s willing to show it in a game made with wit, excitement and moments of visionary beauty. Meanwhile, the soundtrack by David Wise is guaranteed to win listener’s over. Practically every piece on the soundtrack exudes a certain lyricism that has become a staple of Rare’s games – from its upbeat tropical introduction to the unforgettable climax which secures its place as one of the Super Nintendo’s most memorable boss fights. The result is an apt accompaniment to the colorful characters, tropical landscape, and tomfoolery that proceeds.

What really stands out the most about Donkey Kong Country after all of these years is just how challenging this game is.

But what really stands out the most after all of these years is just how challenging this game is. Donkey Kong Country is a platformer you can only finish through persistence and with a lot of patience. Right from the start, you’re in for one hell of a ride. In fact, some of the hardest levels come early on. There are constant pitfalls and Donkey Kong can only take a single hit before he loses a life. If your companion Diddy is following you he will take over but then if he takes a single hit you lose a life and it’s back to the start of a level. Needless to say, the game is unforgiving and requires quick reflexes and precise pattern memorization to continue. This game requires so much fine precision that it will definitely appeal to hardcore platforming veterans looking for a challenge and those that do are in for one hundred eighty minutes of mesmerization, astonishment, thrills, chills, spills, kills and ills. The only real downfall of Donkey Kong Country is the boss battles. Yes, Donkey Kong Country gave us some memorable villains such as Dumb Drum (a giant Oil Drum that spawns enemies after it hits the floor), and The Kremling King (who is responsible for stealing Donkey Kong’s Banana Hoard), but these enemies have very basic attack patterns and far too easy to defeat.

It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

Donkey Kong Country

Along with its two SNES sequels, Donkey Kong Country is one of the defining platformers for the SNES. The game looks great and sounds great and the platforming, while incredibly difficult, is still very fun. Rare did the unexpected by recasting a classic Nintendo villain as the titular hero and it paid off in spades. It’s one of the rare, great works of art that stands up endlessly despite repeated playthroughs, each time revealing something new.

The beauty of the original is that there’s more to it than the oversized gorilla. Donkey Kong Country is truly amazing!

– Ricky D

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Game Reviews

‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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Game Reviews

‘Woven’ Review: Comfortably Soft and Lumpy

Despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure.

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With a sincere warmth and fuzziness that conjures up dreamy recollections of 3D games gone by, Alterego GamesWoven mostly overcomes its blurry visuals and technical jankery to somehow create a pleasant, old-fashioned experience. Those excited by modern gaming probably won’t give this lovable hand-me-down a second look, and perhaps they shouldn’t; extremely simple actions and soothing narration support a fairy tale quality that’s probably best suited to younger players. However, anyone willing to look past the well-worn exterior in search of a relaxing break from stressful button pushing may squeeze more fun out of this familiar stuffed toy than they might originally expect.

Woven tasks players with taking control of a meandering patchwork elephant named Stuffy, and guiding him through a sparsely populated knitted world that seems to have met an untimely demise. Because Stuffy has cotton for brains, he is assisted on this journey by a much smarter metal firefly named Glitch (a reference to his role in this story?), who floats alongside the curious-but-clumsy plush toy and provides hints as to how he can use his various abilities. Together, this odd couple will traverse open plains blanketed with colorful yarn grass, maneuver around impassable felt trees and plants, and hopefully discover the secret of where Stuffy’s clueless kin have all gone.

Along the way, the duo will walk great distances (often without much event), solve the occasional environmental puzzle, and generally just keep on keepin’ on.Woven is mostly straightforward in its campaign, merely about getting from point A to B by whatever means the path requires. Most often this involves finding new blueprints that allow players to change Stuffy’s design from an elephant into a wide variety of other animal shapes, each with a set of abilities that come with a new set of arms, legs, and a head. For instance, while the stocky (and adorable) bear can push plush boulders and perform a mighty stomp, the goat and frog can both use their legs to hop, while the kitty cat is able to push buttons on rusted consoles that activate dormant machinery.

However, these abilities are usually only able to activate when context-sensitive prompts from Glitch appear, so don’t expect some sort of platforming freedom. Woven handles a bit clumsily in that regard and others; strolling is definitely the order of the day, as long as Stuffy doesn’t get hung up on the geometry.

But these actions do help provide variety; a tropical bird of some sort (toucan, maybe?) can sing certain notes, while a pelican-thing can fly (sort of) over land and shallow water with great speed. And so, it often becomes necessary in Woven to alter Stuffy’s look with a total reweave. These designs can be applied at various sewing machine-like stations scattered about, which go a step further than just swapping Stuffy the deer for Stuffy the ape. Each blueprint is comprised of five parts, allowing for players to create a Frankenstein Stuffy made up of all the best abilities the player has on hand (or cushioned paw). By mixing certain sets, Stuffy will soon be able to scale mountainside crags, cross piranha-filled rivers, and pick up industrial cogs without the need to make a pit stop and bust out new needle and thread.

Some truly hilarious (or horrifying, depending on your sensibilities) aberrations can be created; seeing Stuffy hobble on hooves as he flaps a wing on one side and swings a muscular gorilla arm on the other, all with the head of a squirrel, is freakishly entertaining. In addition, for those who like to wander off the beaten path, there are a plethora of knitting patterns to discover, tucked away in both obvious and devious locations (and denizens). These cosmetic enhancements can also be applied at the sewing stations, essentially giving players seemingly endless amounts of customization. And these aesthetic changes even get in on the puzzle act every once in a while, especially when a pesky cobra shows up.

But outside the odd ‘connect the power line’ or ‘raise and lower platforms’ objectives, Woven doesn’t throw much at players that even young children shouldn’t be able to handle — and that seems to be the aim. Stuffy’s adventure lives or dies on its wholesome and serene vibe, which players either buy into or they don’t. There’s no combat here, very little to actually do outside hunting down those patterns, illuminating some painted caves, and activating some of Glitch’s ‘memories’ contained by machines hidden in the soft folds. Ongoing narration is pleasant to the ears, often conveying old-fashioned morals and cutesy jokes, but there’s no more story than in a classic fable.

And make no mistake — though the world is certainly bright and cheerful, it’s also quite fuzzy around the edges. The tactile nature of the cloth textures is lessened greatly by the low definition (at least on the Switch version), eliciting memories of the Wii-era. An increased crispness would have really made the world of Woven pop off the screen, perhaps luring in a larger audience who have become accustomed to such. There is still plenty of charm, but it feels like a missed chance at that true magical feeling the game seems to be shooting for.

Other stumbles come when certain worlds try to open up a bit more, which might lead a younger audience to get frustrated by the lack of direction (especially when they keep getting hung up on that geometry!); Woven definitely works better when it’s casually guiding players along, letting gamers of all ages envelop themselves in the easygoing atmosphere instead of requiring tedious backtracking. There’s just something nice about sitting back and relaxing to hummable music, watching the roly-poly amble of a stuffed kangaroo.

Woven will not be for everyone; those who play for challenge or eye candy won’t find either here. And yet, despite those blurry visuals and stilted gameplay, there’s something endearing about this innocent elephant’s adventure. Woven certainly has its share of lumpiness, but somehow remains cozy regardless.

‘Woven’ is available on PC, Xbox One, PS4, and Switch (Reviewed on Switch).

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