“Observation” Video Game Shows How AI Solves Problems in Space
Summer is here and some free time can come to explore space in the form of a game and the one that has recently caught our attention is exploring how a fictional artificial intelligence (AI) solves problems in space. So, naturally, we were eager to jump into it.
The game, “Observation“, developed by No Code and published by Devolver Digital, was released for a few platforms in 2019 and extended to Microsoft Xbox last year. Exceptionally for space games, you play as AI and try to help an astronaut facing a catastrophic problem on a space station in the near future.
Your mission as an AI, named SAM, is to open doors, turn floodgates, and solve problems with an astronaut named Emma. At the start of the game, you and Emma work together to contain a fire in the space station, then Emma asks you to verify the source of the fire using your cameras and sensors.
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Observation for PC on Steam:
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By playing a few hours of the game, you can understand why space is such a difficult environment for astronauts and computers. You’re always trying to fix things, and the SAM-Emma dynamic simulates how teams work together to solve problems in real time on the International space station (ISS). What we particularly liked was the idea that sometimes you have to try a few strategies to find the right solution, which is similar to what astronauts do in dynamic situations such as a spacewalk.
To fix the game’s issues, you not only need to search the environment, but also mash the buttons in a particular order, similar to the footage players used in the 2018 video game “Detroit: Become Human” which explored rights androids. Fortunately, however, “Observation” is more forgiving than “Detroit”, and the astronaut will often take over if you struggle to find the solution.
Gaming is a good choice if you like problem-solving and bonding as you go, but if you’re looking for action and quick fixes, you won’t enjoy the experience. Some of the puzzle puzzles require you to sit for a while and think logically, playing from different camera angles and asking your crew member for help. But be patient, and the rewards will come.
Space.com spoke with Jon McKellan, Creative Director of No Code, to learn more about the game’s development process. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Space.com: What was the inspiration behind “Observation”?
Jon McKellan: The idea came from an article I had read years ago, [which described a thought experiment] take an antagonist from a movie and recontextualize the movie with him as the protagonist. The example he cited was the alien from the original “Extraterrestrial(1979) movie. I had just completed five years of work on the survival horror game “Alien: Isolation” (2014), and I was heavily immersed in “Alien.” Viewing the movie from the perspective of the alien opened my eyes to a creature born into a hostile environment with a crew trying to kill it, and all it wants is to eat!
So I started to think of other favorite movies and stories that could go through a similar process. I immediately jumped on “2001: A Space Odyssey“(1968) and I thought about what the HAL computer might be going through – what it might be like to suddenly have consciousness, or have a sudden existential awakening – and that became the seeds of the game.
Space.com: How similar or different is this game to other games that you or your company have made in the past?
McKellan: We pitched – and were in the process of signing – “Observation” when we made an experimental adventure game, “Stories Untold” (2017). Signing took a long time! We actually road tested some gameplay concepts for “Observation” in “Stories Untold”. Our main focus has always been to tell great interactive stories, where the player’s agency is aligned with the character development. The gameplay that we ask the player to participate in is both appropriate to the moment and the characters, and believable in terms of presentation.
In the case of “Observation”, it is also about science. There is no such thing as putting gems in a statue puzzle to reveal a secret path. Instead, the game is about trying to stabilize an experimental, miniaturized fusion reactor, or dealing with the compression of airlocks between modules. Everything is as grounded and believable as it gets, while still being exciting and unusual for audiences.
Space.com: What sci-fi franchises and real-life experiences did you use to create the game?
McKellan: The majority of situational “issues” the player faces in the game stem from our theory of what could go wrong on the International Space Station and how you could fix it. We have spent months going through background material and books about the station and the various systems in place to deal with the myriad of issues that could arise.
Apart from that, a library of films from the past five decades has helped inform the mood and tone. For issues that directly affect Emma the teammate, we were inspired by “Gravity“(2013), which shows very intimately how the physical dangers of being in space can affect a person. For player character SAM, it was more things like” Alien “(1979),” Event Horizon ” (1997) and, of course, “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). A big part of the game is that you view 90% of the action through the on-board CCTV system, so we often have to tell the story at quite a distance. “Found movies” such as “Blair Witch” (2016) or “Europa Report” (2013) were very helpful in learning how to do this and enjoying the point of view.
Space.com: Which experts, if any, did you speak to in the space world to build the game, and what did you learn from them?
McKellan: We didn’t have a lot of opportunities to speak to many experts, unfortunately. Trying to make contact as a game studio seems to be a lot more difficult than when you are making a movie. Hopefully this will change over time and clearer and more standardized lines of communication between our industries will be put in place. Fortunately, however, the European Space Agency and NASA has made so much quality material available to the public that we have had a lot of references to build our world and our history.
We obviously have a bit more of a supernatural or alien storyline, so we figured out what that would change and went from there. For example, if the ISS were suddenly on another planet in the Outer Solar System, its solar panels would be much less efficient. We incorporate that kind of science – and how you might deal with it – into the story and the gameplay.
Space.com: What made you choose to tell the story from a computer’s point of view?
McKellan: What fascinated me was the idea of an artificial intelligence becoming “awake” just as the player takes control. The player is the new consciousness. They provide the uncertainty, the human approach to problem solving, empathy for other characters and, of course, the flaws, mistakes, and subjectivity that come with the territory. This meant that SAM’s character could develop in perfect sync with the player’s experience. SAM and the player have an identical perspective on the world, and – with one exception you’ll see during the game – SAM never says or does something the player doesn’t expect.
On top of that, there is a layer of player action that has a direct impact on the story. For example, as a gamer, it makes sense to switch to a camera in a room and listen to a conversation, or open doors and explore. But for the crew in the game, it’s an extremely scary thing to do! This meant that SAM’s innocent actions had this other meaning for the crew, really making the player think about their role in the story. It was the main driving force of the whole experience. The player almost plays the game without realizing it.
Space.com: What do you hope players will take away from the game?
McKellan: We went to great lengths to create depth in the story, the details of the background, the mysterious languages, etc. I would say the best mindset is always to think, “What would an AI do?” Some puzzles are simple, but others require a change of perspective. When we see a fire and are asked to put it out in a game, we tend to think about how we would do it physically, maybe as a teammate or something like that.
But here you play a different supporting role. You think about the steps to get there like an AI would: log into a system, activate it, let the team know the problem first, that sort of thing. It is – for us humans – a truly fascinating way to experience and participate in an interactive story. It creates exciting moments from a whole new angle that only a game could do.
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