Back in February 2016, Poland-based developer Bloober Team launched its psychological and psychedelic adventure horror game: Layers of Fear. But before it launched Layers of Fear, Bloober Team was already kicking around the idea of its next game, one similar to its predecessor, but set within a Cyberpunk world: a game called Observer.
Fast-forward to E3 2016, and the game was officially unveiled with an engrossing teaser and gameplay trailer. The game’s pitch: “What would you do, if your fears got hacked.”
Recently, DualShockers sat down with Brand Manager at Bloober Team, Rafał Basaj, to talk about Observer, including its inspirations, story, themes, approach to horror, and more.
DualShockers: What inspired Bloober Team to make Observer? And where — if any — does the game itself draw inspirations from?
Rafał Basaj: We are always looking for new, psychological themes and subjects that will be meaningful to our players. A dystopian future ruled by an oppressive corporation, a world where everything is hackable, even our own minds — that gives us a long list of personal and social fears to work with. >observer_ takes place in 2084, but even today, here in 2017, we fear our data being leaked, our identities being stolen, our credit card numbers skimmed and sold to the highest bidder. The digital world of today is like an all seeing eye – somewhere, some computer or AI program knows not only what we do and where we go, but it can also guess what we will do and where we will go. At the same time, we have already invented chips and implants meant to augment the human body. With >observer_ we wanted to explore how far humanity might take these technologies, which allows us to ask big questions in our games. When do we stop being human? When do we become something more? Can one lose their humanity, or have it stolen? Above all, we wanted to make a game that explored the boundaries of humanity.
Also, we have a ton of cyberpunk fans in this building. We love everything from William Gibson novels to 90’s cyberpunk anime, to classic cyberpunk movies like Blade Runner. We took all these elements and shaped them to create a cyberpunk horror experience, a future that we should all be afraid of.
DS: Your last game (Layers of Fear) was also a first-person adventure horror/thriller game, set in the first half of the 20th century in a Victorian mansion. Meanwhile, Observer is set in a cyberpunk environment heavily influenced by Eastern European culture. Can you elaborate more on the game’s setting, as well as why you used the influences of cyberpunk and Eastern Europe for the game?
RB: Cyberpunk is a gritty, dystopian vision of the near future, where corporations have seized global power and human augmentations — from nano implants to full-fledged cyborg bodies — are a reality. At the same time, there are the elite, the one-percent of people who live in luxury at the top of the corporation. The rest of the world works to service them, lucky to even put food on the table.
A lot of what we call cyberpunk was created in the United States and Japan. We wanted to create the Eastern European vision cyberpunk. Eastern Europe has mostly lagged behind the West in terms of technology and culture, an being based in Krakow, we’re certainly aware of that. Our generation grew up in the shadows of grey concrete buildings, with limited access to the modern tech we would see in cities like Berlin and New York. Because of this, we decided to give the world of Observer a “retro” vibe – what cyberpunk would have looked like 30 years ago. It’s a gritty world that’s familiar to us Easterners, somewhat exotic to Westerners, and above all, true to cyberpunk.
DS: In the game there is a special corporate-funded police unit called the Observers, and you play as one named Dan. Are these Observers good or bad guys? Or are they a little bit of both? Do they serve the well-being of the people, or do they just have a corporate interest?
DS: Just like police officers today, some observers are better than others. Investigating the crimes inside of people’s minds is just police work to them — highly dangerous work because it can scramble their own brains, as you’ll experience in game. But this is their job, given to them by the almighty Chiron Corporation. In this culture, you don’t really ask questions. You do what you’re told.
They may or may not enjoy this line of work, but they get the job done. Is it morally acceptable to hack into someone’s brain and access their deepest secrets and fears? Is it OK to step into people’s most intimate memories, like meeting your spouse for the first time, while looking for clues to solve a crime? Of course not, but the corporation has its own agenda and the observers are a tool to achieve that agenda. In general, they are just normal people, doing very shady work, with the law on their side. They still care for their families and live a semi-normal life. They can be very good people. But there’s no question this kind of work wears on observers, just as it will wear on Dan.
DS: A key mechanic to the game are the augmentations that allow players to gather information, interrogate, and hack into the minds of both criminals and victims. Can you elaborate a bit more on how this translates to the moment-to-moment gameplay?
RB: You begin the game investigating the disappearance of your son, and you track him to a crumbling tenement building in the Class C stacks. This is where the lowest of the low live. As soon as you get there, things go very wrong. You discover a murder scene and the government places the building on lock-down, which basically locks all the apartments, effectively turning them into prison cells. With the use of your augmentations, you will need to investigate the crime scene and track down the killer.
But observers use more than just a notepad and a magnifying glass. They are going to hack into people’s minds to see what they saw, to live what they lived. But the mind is a chaotic place, and each mind is incredibly different. You are basically walking around inside these people’s identities. It will take a toll on you, but the clues you find will lead you deeper and deeper into this mystery.
DS: There seems to be a theme of altered perception and utter mystery present in what you’ve shown of the game so far. How important are these themes to Observer?
RB: Those are extremely important themes for us. Besides the main story thread, there’s also a lot of smaller mysteries for you to discover, background mysteries, if you will. The residents in the building are all dealing with very serious issues — some psychological, some social, some sexual, so you’ll have to deal with them too.
We all have secrets, and we try to protect them. When you are roaming the minds of deranged people, your own sense of perception disappears. There are no limits to what we can create inside of someone’s psyche. Memories will cut in and overlap at seemingly random moments. Even the physics of the world change. We hope exploring these neural mazes will be a psychological experience bordering on the psychedelic.
Of course, it will also be terrifying.
DS: When I played Layers of Fear, what struck me most is how genuinely scary and unnerving the game was without a reliance on jump scares (like most horror games). Is Observer going for the same tactic? If so, how does it approach making players unsettled and horrified?
RB: We will be using a lot of the same techniques we used in Layers of Fear, and applying the lessons we’ve learned on how to make these more effective. Then, we adapt our design for the cyberpunk setting, weaving those mechanics within the narrative, so the scares feel like they belong in this disturbing world.
People are afraid of the unknown. When we lack information, our imagination fills in the gaps. Think about some of the most disturbing thoughts you’ve ever had, those thoughts you ignore, but you did think them, if only for a second. Perhaps a hint of a murderous or suicidal thought. Thinking those thoughts doesn’t make you a murderer or a bad person. Acting on them does. But still, you have to wonder. Where inside of you do your dark thoughts come from? Why do we think them? Nothing is more frightening than what we create in our own minds.
DS: Observer seems to rely on having players make choices in how they approach certain situations. How much — if any — do these choices affect the narrative? Are there multiple endings?
RB: There will be multiple endings. We want to give the player a lot more freedom and choice in how they approach the world, especially the real-world detective scenes. Crimes have been committed here, and it’s your job to solve them.
You’re an observer, a neural detective working for the Chiron Corporation. We want you to solve this mystery in your own way. That has to feel grounded somewhat in the real world. When you hack people’s minds, though, all bets are off, and anything can and will happen.
DS: How long is an average playthrough of the game, and has there been anything done to encourage replayability?
RB: >observer_ is bigger than Layers in almost every aspect, from the size of the world, to the narrative, to the game mechanics. There will be a lot more to do than walking from room to hallway to room and back. There will be some holy shit moments that you won’t see coming, and you’ll want to see those moments again.
It’s like immediately rewatching The Sixth Sense because you wanted to make sure Bruce Willis was really — spoiler alert — dead that whole time. Point being, you’ll want to experience these moments a second time, knowing what you know now. They add extra levels of understanding. These moments are why we love psychological horror.
All that said, expect the game to be twice as long as Layers of Fear, from seven to eight hours for a single playthrough, longer if you’re trying to find every hidden secret, room, and collectible.
DS: Has there been any consideration for a VR version of the game, or any other platforms — such as the Nintendo Switch?
RB: We are always considering additional platforms for our games. We don’t have anything to announce at this time.
DS: What did Bloober Team learn from developing and putting out Layers of Fear and, in turn, how has that knowledge been used to the betterment of Observer?
RB: We learned a lot. First and foremost, there is a place for psychological horror games, games that are more subtle than traditional action/survival horror, games focused on atmosphere and emotional dilemma rather than weapon slots and character upgrades. We watched hundreds of hours of playthroughs from Layers of Fear to learn when and how our scare tactics work best, and where we need to improve.
Layers of Fear was largely shaped by the community thanks to their involvement during the Early Access stage. Because of this, we tend to listen very closely to what people have to say to us and how they approach our games. This feedback formed the backbone of how we shaped >observer_. We can’t wait for you to play.