Observer Developers Discuss How To Design Atmospheric Horror

Bloober Team, a small studio based in the Polish city of Kraków, are hard at work on a new game entitled Observer (stylized as >Observer_). A horror game like...

Bloober Team, a small studio based in the Polish city of Kraków, are hard at work on a new game entitled Observer (stylized as >Observer_). A horror game like their last title, Layers of Fear, this is also a cyberpunk game, rooted in core cyberpunk topics like oppressive poverty and giant mega-corporations that care nothing for the value of human life. It’s also in rooted in Polish culture and in modern fears surrounding data privacy – perspectives which help ground the game in the real world. We sat down with Bloober Team’s Rafał Basaj to talk about how the team approached the creation of their specific brand of horror.

The core idea of cyberpunk horror was one of the first ideas to be brought up after the studio wrapped up Layers of Fear and started looking for something new to build. According to Basaj, “there were a lot of people at the company who grew up reading Philip K. Dick or William Gibson, and who grew up watching cyberpunk movies and anime. There’s a huge pool of cyberpunk fans at the office. So once that idea was pitched, we stopped – everybody was on board.”

Expect a run-down cyberpunk dystopia infused with creepy, invasive technology.

Setting the game apart is important, of course, and is a goal that needs to be pursued on two levels. Bloober Team needs their own unique brand of cyberpunk, one that is both recognizable as part of the genre but also distinct enough that the game develops a character of its own. They also needed to set the game apart from other horror games, particularly from the increasingly-popular survival horror genre, in order to properly set player expectations.

The distinction from the rest of cyberpunk came easily: the team wanted to create something rooted in the world they knew, in post-Communist Poland, and specifically drew on the city they lived in for the setting. While the game’s evil mega-corporation, CHIRON, is as capitalist as any other, Basaj explains that echoes of communism can be found in how it “seizes control of the world and establishes the fifth Polish republic. So it’s oppressive, a bit like communism, with propaganda posters and other visual elements that recall that period.”

The game also features iconic material culture of post-Communist Poland, such as specific models of cars and vacuum cleaners that will be especially familiar to people who grew up in Poland during the time, though the retro feeling they give off readily crosses cultural boundaries; this sense of mundane familiarity helps accentuate the unsettling and disturbing things the protagonist encounters. Most interestingly, “most of the game takes place in one tenement building, and we actually went there and took photos, and included its real GPS coordinates. You can walk into it and see that we’ve more or less taken the real topography of the space and then changed it to suit the game, colored and broken and so on. But it’s a real building, painted like the buildings in Krakow right now.”

“The reason we wanted to set the game in Poland was because it’s all familiar to us. These kinds of tenement buildings are old and kind of scary already – well-off people don’t live there, and you wouldn’t want to wander into them at night, for fear of all sorts of things. Those places really work on your imagination, so we wanted to use that familiar fear to the game’s advantage.”

Observer’s environments are designed to be distinct and rooted in a specific time and culture.

I briefly asked Basaj whether Catholicism played a role in the game, as Poland has a long Catholic history and Catholicism is a popular well to draw from in horror, as our own Joanna noted in her review of Outlast 2. Basaj told me, “We don’t want to play with religion too much. It’s hard to talk about religion without making someone nervous about it, and we don’t feel the game needs any controversy to be seen and recognized. There are some themes that revolve around what’s written in the Bible, or are connected with the mythology of Catholicism or religion, but it’s very sparse. It’s not a conscious effort.”

Something I noticed while watching trailers and gameplay footage was the occasional splash of warm, vibrant colors, an unusual sight in horror and even in neon-tinged cyberpunk. “This is kind of connected with the cyberpunk setting. Obviously cyberpunk is partly about these gritty, dystopian near-future worlds, but it’s also associated with an aesthetic, neons running through dark alleys and so on. We swapped out the neons for holograms plastered throughout the environment – the idea being that after a huge pandemic and a giant world war, CHIRON decided not to waste money rebuilding things and instead just projects holograms everywhere, to cover the world beneath it.” The result is a world that is visibly decaying underneath a literally transparent attempt to cover it up – an environment that oozes with both hopelessness and greed.

The game’s psychological themes play a role both in the art style and the level design, encouraging the team to move beyond grayish color palettes and allowing them to play with space beyond the confines of the real tenement building the game is set in. One of the base mechanics in the game is mind hacking – you literally plug into people’s minds and explore their memories and feelings. And in there, we can use whatever kind of imagery we want. While walking through someone’s mind, you’ll also see lots of vivid, saturated colors and images and flashing lights. Colors and other vivid things are what we tend to remember better, so we wanted to preserve that feeling.”

Bright colors and mundane surroundings will provide a stark contrast for the game’s unsettling, surreal elements.

“It also lets us expand the experience outside of this tenement building. The human mind isn’t a very straightforward place – it’s chaotic, you can be thinking about thousands of things at the same time without realizing it. So we’re working to use that to our advantage, to make the game feel more trippy and disorienting such that the player doesn’t know when and where something will happen to them. In that sense, we’re playing with the same kinds of themes we did in Layers of Fear. The environment is something of an antagonist in the game, as well as a protagonist – a whole character, really. It’s important for us to make the environment realistic and tangible, so that you can more easily notice when things are wrong, when small details start to shift around and undermine that sense of realism. It’s not just psychological horror but also psychedelic horror that we’re trying to incorporate into the game.

The first challenge was setting the game apart from the rest of cyberpunk, but the second was more surprising to me. Pulling audiences’ minds away from survival horror genre as they engaged with Observer was a challenge I hadn’t anticipated before interviewing Basaj, though. “With Layers of Fear we actually got comments along the lines of, ‘where’s my gun? I need a gun in this game. Why can’t I shoot these things?’” He laughs. “When people are talking about our games, even journalists who have a broad knowledge of the game, their first instinct is often to describe it as a survival horror game. But our games are based on the psychological aspects, so we wanted to stay away from killing thousands of monsters or playing cat-and-mouse throughout the entire game. We don’t want our game to have high dexterity requirements of the player – we want to explore the environment and the world.”

The boundaries of our identity are key here. Aside from the buildup and release of fear that’s fundamental to the horror genre, Observer is meant to get us ponder what’s happening in the game, to mull over the breakdown of those boundaries being presented. “We want our games to have a main subject, one that all components of the game ultimately revolve around one way or another. With Layers of Fear that was the struggle between your family life and your work life – do you want to be a successful artist, or sacrifice some of that to have a happy family life? We never ask those questions explicitly, we just make the game, but it makes people ask themselves those questions.

There are already rampant fears that our data, our identities, and our institutions can be hacked. The next step Observer takes from there, Basaj says, is to “imagine a world where someone can come up to you on the street and actually hack your mind, and go through your most intimate memories. The human mind isn’t a straightforward thing, it’s all interconnected, so of course they’ll need to explore around to find what they’re looking for. They’ll see a lot of other things on the way. It’s a real violation.”

With the biggest threats being aimed at your own mind, can you trust what you see?

Even the UI gets touched by the game’s horror focus. As in many cyberpunk universes, protagonist Lazarki has augmentations, in this case a device called a Dream-Eater that allows him to hack into other people’s minds. “We try to keep the HUD to a minimum (it’s distracting) but you need the player to be able to follow objectives and keep track of the main character’s status. The main character has augmentations that his body is rejecting, for example, so sometimes he’ll need to take a pill that stabilizes his psychological state, to get rid of the distortions the augmentations are causing. You’ll be able to see that state in the HUD.” The safety of cybernetic enhancements inside the human body is a wider theme reflected elsewhere in the game. “We especially did some research with regards to medicine and pharmacology to help develop our digital plague, the nanophage. It attacks people on the digital level (people with augmentations) as well as on the bodily level, giving them physical problems. We researched what the treatments might be, what terms to use, that sort of thing.”

And as for whether any of the team’s own personal fears have been leveraged to create the game? Apart from the claustrophobia inherent in narrow spaces, the biggest theme that came up was data privacy. Not much research was necessary for this. “It’s a very contemporary problem for everyday people. We didn’t do much directed research into how corporations grow and seize power, for example – we can see that every day, in the world around us. It’s just news, it’s pop culture. Most of us already have fears about our data security, about having our devices and emails accessed, about how our phones and TV sets and so on are tapped by government surveillance programs.”

With data security and information warfare becoming increasingly relevant topics in the modern world and in our everyday lives, it’s easy to see how Observer could really strike a chord with audiences. Observer has just come out of E3 with fresh features and interviews, and the game is scheduled for release sometime in the summer of 2017 on Steam and on the Xbox One.