There are several ways you can summarize the plot of the Bloober Team’s Observer. For example, you can say that this is a game about a futuristic cop, played by Rutger Hauer, who chases after a murderous monster in the cyberpunk dystopian setting. This way, Observer reminds us of Split Second—a 1992 sci-fi action flick—not explicitly smart or insightful but nevertheless fun in a guilty-pleasure sense.
But another way to summarize Observer is to see it as a story about the post-plague world, where people live in constant fear of the new outbreak, ready for routine lockdowns. This way, the game paints the picture of a totally atomized society where each individual is tightly confined to the limits of their tiny apartment, which reminds us of something wider and deeper than a ’90s movie. It reminds us of our current reality.
One of the founders of cyberpunk, Bruce Sterling, defined the genre as «a combination of low-life and high tech»—a dystopian fusion of shiny technology and filthy poverty. Observer fits perfectly in this template, placing its story in the slums of futuristic Krakow. Neon lights of advertisements, displays, interfaces, and body augmentations merge with poverty, crime, addiction, filth, and moral bankruptcy in the classical cyberpunk way. Along with all the genre tropes Observer activates to entertain the player, there is one particular theme that the game succeeds to nail the best—the theme of mass alienation and social atomization—two intertwined and interconnected phenomena of modern-day neoliberalism.
In «Technology and Alienation in Modern-Day Societies,» Karam Adibifar highlights the negative cost of technological progress embodied by class conflict, environmental degradation, and mass alienation. He summarizes the warnings of classical sociological theorists (like Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel) that, albeit had different perspectives on the issue, all shared the idea that «alienation leads to loss of self or relations with others, negatively impacting both private and social life.» (Adibifar, 2016)
Adibafar defines alienation as a «psychological condition that refers to the breakdown of the natural interconnection among people and their production and feeling of disconnectedness from social settings as the individual views his/ her relationships from social context as no longer reasonable. It is an objective and subjective feeling of isolation, unhappiness, lack of involvement, or only instrumental involvement with work and with others.» (Adibifar, 2016)
The concept of alienation is mostly associated with Marx. The capitalist structure is based on «naked self-interest.» Owners of the means of production have all the power and economic advantage at the expense of both the workers that produce goods and services and the consumers. They support technology and science not to solve existing social problems but to justify the status quo for one purpose only—the accumulation of more wealth and power. Adibafar widens Marx’s alienation relevant to production and perceives technology’s consumption as a core agent of the phenomena. «It is true that technology has made it easier for people to interact, but it also has and continues to diminish the value of human communication.» (Adibifar, 2016)
In Observer, you are confined to a populated tenement building for all duration of the plot. So you interact with people pretty often. Some of the NPCs give you side quests, and some are directly connected to your main investigation. But all of them are interacted with through intercom interfaces. You never see the living tenants—only locked doors of their apartments, parts of their faces through displays, and a couple of their corpses. The only exception from the rule is the janitor—a traumatized war veteran whose ability to communicate is limited by cheap cybernetic implants and stuttering unclear speech.
Those displays, showing ears, eyes, and mouths of people behind doors, are the technological substitute to real human interaction. Through those displays, we see all sorts of social and individual problems—domestic violence, toxic masculinity, various sorts of addiction, reclusion, and mental and physical illnesses. All those are distant, secluded, closed behind shut tight doors with no chance of being cured and solved. Those displays are Observer‘s way of representing Boykoff’s leaf blower metaphor.
In his insightful essay «The Leaf Blower, Capitalism, and the Atomization of Everyday Life,» Jules Boykoff draws an almost Barthesian analysis of leaf blowers’ popularity through which deep problematic relation between technology and social problems gets evident. I highly recommend reading this essay in full because its insights are too great to fit in my tiny article.
In short, Bykoff argues that «the leaf blower embodies within itself the essential anti-ecological gesture of capital as it annihilates the cyclical flow and exchange between ecosystems upon which nature has built its intrinsic integrity. The leaf blower also illuminates a range of relations, from the psychological propensity to disperse responsibility to the encouragement of hyperindividualized behavior to the intensification, racialization, and aggravation of labor relations.» (Boykoff, 2011)
It’s fascinating how a single technological product embodies so many modern-day social maladies: ecological damage, diffusion of responsibility, upper-class NIMBYism, and the atomization of everyday life. But it serves as a mere though powerful metaphor for a clusterfuck of unintended consequences produced by technological innovation combined with destructive tendencies of modern-day capitalism.
Boykoff defines atomization as «a social mechanism whereby collective units (e.g. families, unions, classes) are reduced to individualized units consisting of one person rather than many.» Hyper-individualism is atomization’s structural effect with which it disconnects individuals from their social frameworks and encourages them «to look after their own interests at the expense of the collective good.» (Boykoff, 2011)
As a direct effect of that, atomization help colonize social space. «As a key ideational technology of governance under neoliberalism, atomization slices at the sinews of resistance, defanging dissent as it devalorizes collective action and undercuts the potential for political contestation.» (Boykoff, 2011)
So-called Class C citizens populate Observer‘s tenement building—poor working-class people, most of them. As with the modern-day working class, they are fragmented and disorganized. Each apartment has its own individual story—people solve (or fail to solve) their local problems without any actual political resistance to the oppressive corporate system. There is no government—2084 Poland is fully controlled by Chiron megacorporation—and there is no meaningful sociopolitical resistance.
Under such conditions, morals go bankrupt. One of the sidequests tells the story of the Class A citizen who uses a comatose little girl’s mind for a gruesome treatment of her terminal disease, effectively colonizing another person’s body. Another sidequest leads you to a doctor who grows and sells human organs, capitalizing on the anti-augmentation movement growing popular after the nanophage—an epidemic digital disease. One of the other tenants never leaves virtual reality, and for him, the power outage is not a mere inconvenience but insufferable existential suffering.
There are dozens of little stories in Observer‘s tenement building, and all of them isolated from each other, highlighting the total atomization of the in-game society. That side aspect of the game’s world is one of the most effective depictions of social atomization that I’ve seen in the medium.
Social atomization in Observer came to its apotheosis when the game bugged out, ruined my save-file (screw that checkpoint-only save system), and each time I reloaded, I’ve found myself falling through the map in the black bottomless void. However, jokes aside, not finishing Observer because of the game-breaking bug hasn’t ruined my playing experience. Because for me, Observer is a game about social atomization and mass alienation, wherever the main plotline eventually leads. And it hits so close to home. It hits home hard, especially now in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So every time you see technologically enforced individualism depicted as empowerment, remember the filth and ugliness of Observer‘s tenement building, for this is how mass alienation and social atomization actually look like under the covers of neoliberal bullshit.
Adibifar, Karam. (2016). Technology and Alienation in Modern-Day Societies. International Journal of Social Science Studies. 4.
Boykoff, Jules. (2011). The Leaf Blower, Capitalism, and the Atomization of Everyday Life. Capitalism Nature Socialism. 22.