Observer's dire warnings about the future of cybernetics and humanity

Contributed by
Aug 23, 2017

Observer from Bloober Team is a cyberpunk horror adventure game that channels Blade Runner, Neuromancer, The Cell, and a touch of Johnny Mnemonic to weave a cautionary tale set in Poland circa 2084. In this future, the world has been wracked by nuclear war. The geopolitical situation has changed to the point where Poland is a world power whose government and largest employer is Chiron Incorporated. Cybernetics are ubiquitous in daily life. Whether for fashion, utility, pleasure, or more devious desires, almost every individual sports at least one mechanical augmentation.

The character you play as, Daniel Lazarski, has a complicated history with cybernetics. He is a Kraków police detective, part of a special unit called the Observers. Daniel can link his mind to the subconscious of others via a special implant unofficially known as the Dream Eater. He's often called on during interrogations, and part of his duty is to jack into suspects' neural implants and ascertain the truth with or without their cooperation.

Observer

The game centers around Daniel trying to figure out the fate of his estranged son. Almost the entirety of Observer takes place in a rundown tenement building, but even though we experience only a small area of this future Kraków, we are exposed to philosophical quandaries that we are already seeing the birth of today.

A major question posed in Observer is: What is humanity and what does it mean to be human? Almost everyone you meet in the game has some cybernetic alteration. These implants have become so cheap and numerous that some jobs even list certain ones as requirements. The public's attitude about cybernetic implants ranges from fanatical to abhorrent. One man you meet during the game is obsessed with turning himself entirely mechanical, with the belief that it is humanity's next evolutionary form. Contrasting that is another citizen you meet that is part of a cult called the Children of the Immaculate Birth. This cult is highly vocal against augmentation, and believes it is against God's will to alter the human form.

Observer

The citizens of Poland are apathetic about cybernetics. They're too busy trying to make ends meet and survive to wax philosophical. As Daniel continues to solve the mystery behind his son's disappearance, it becomes evident how much these people's lives are ruled by their cybernetics. They have to have cybernetics to work, and they have to have the right kind of cybernetics, so people don't think of them the wrong way. Everything about the way people are connected to one another in the community as a whole is dictated by cybernetics.

The philosophical implications of the game are made even more complex by the existence of the Nanophage. This illness affects the nanomachines that make cybernetic implantations possible. When contracted, instead of suppressing our natural immune system so the implants are rejected, the nanomachines turn on the human body as if it were a foreign organism. The citizens of 2084 are constantly under the threat of this highly contagious disorder. However, even though death is almost certain if contracted, there is one surefire way to prevent yourself from ever catching it: Don't have any cybernetic implants.

So, is "Cybernetics make you less human" the answer to the question? Do dependence on mechanical aids and replacement of parts of our bodies sap away at our humanity? For Daniel, living with cybernetics is the harder choice. Observers are at an extremely high risk for psychosis and tend to have drastically short lifespans. However, Daniel never sees his implants as anything more than a means to an end. He rejects the notion that his augmentations are anything more than tools, and in doing so keeps his self-image and humanity separate from the parts of him that are machine.

Observer

Daniel's decision to do this comes at a price. The more time we spend with him, the more it seems like he regards his implants as a ball and chain, or some invasive creature. Observer shows us that complete rejection of high technology has the potential to make us just as miserable as if we become completely reliant on it. It's Daniel's rigid adherence to the traditional and biological definition of humanity that first ended up causing the split between him and his son.

Observer seems to lean toward the opinion that cybernetics may be a bridge too far, but doesn't discount the possibility that we could use this technology intelligently. It's not hard to draw an allegory to smartphones based on this argument. In today's society, we're always expected to be plugged in, and we become so reliant on the communication and information tools provided by these devices that it's hard to imagine life without that Apple or Android at your side. There is no question that when used healthily, mobile devices give a person capabilities that would've seemed like science fiction just 15 years ago. But, just like the cybernetics in Observer, the obsession with doing more, of posting more, taking more pictures, can lead us to shut out the world around us for a curated version we view through a 5" screen.

With technology advancing so rapidly, the cyberpunk tale may look very familiar to the world around us in the next 25 to 50 years. Many of us are still going to be alive when technology like that seen in Observer is commonplace. Rather than just a mental exercise, the concerns of this fictional future Poland are going to become increasingly realistic. It may be time to give them some thought before it's too late, and you find yourself in Daniel Lazarski's shoes.