‘Observation’ is a tense, atmospheric puzzler where you play a modern HAL 9000

When you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, do you find yourself criticizing HAL 9000’s machinations and thinking, “I could do better than that!” If so, Observation may be right up your alley. In it you play a space station AI called SAM that is called upon by the humans on board to help resolve a deadly mystery — though you may be a part of it yourself.

The game takes place in the near future on board the titular space station, a sort of expanded version of the ISS. You are booted up by astronaut Emma Fisher after an unspecified event that seems to have damaged the station. You, as the Systems Administration and Maintenance AI, are tasked with helping her out as she first tries to simply survive the immediate aftermath, then starts to investigate what happened.

To do so you perform various tasks such a digital agent would do, such as unlocking and opening hatches, checking for system errors, collecting information from damaged laptops, and so on. It’s mostly done through the many cameras mounted throughout the station, between which you can usually move freely and change the angle so you can get at this hatch or that scrap of paper on the wall.

But from the beginning it’s clear that this is not a simple case of a micrometeorite or some other common space anomaly. I won’t spoil any of the surprises, but suffice it to say that like in 2001, the mystery runs deeper than that, and SAM itself is implicated.

Observation is a puzzle game that plays out in real time, though you are rarely presented with a task that needs to be completed in a rush — your commands are rarely an urgent “Open the pod bay doors, SAM!” and more “Something’s wrong with the cooling system, so this hatch won’t open, can you look into it?”

And so you search using your cameras for, say, the server that controls that system, or the scrap of paper that has its schematic so you can reboot it. These solutions are usually just a matter of being, well, observant, but occasionally can be frustrating gadget hunts where you don’t know what you’re looking for among the busy background of a working space station and the detritus of the disaster.

If you’re having trouble with something, chances are you’re overthinking it. I had to look up the solution to one situation, and it turns out I had simply overlooked some interactive objects because they looked so much like background. (For the record, it turns out you can turn stuff on and off at power outlets.)

When you have to operate something, like an airlock, there is usually a little minigame to complete in which you must figure out which series of buttons to hit or hold — nothing too taxing, just a way to make it so you aren’t just pressing the Action Button all the time. The controls can be a bit clunky, such as one that had me hold down s to do one thing, then press and hold w at the same time. Do they not understand the same finger does both those things? Fortunately you can remap controls and although mouse movement is a bit stiff, there’s no need for twitchy response time.

Although the puzzles are a bit simplistic, it’s a pleasure navigating the station because it is so beautifully realized. The creators clearly did a ton of research and Observation, that is to say the station, is a convincing 21st century operation — cameras and laptops are stashed everywhere, sticky notes from the Russian and Chinese denizens, luggage and experiments tucked away or half finished.

It’s also all viewed through a combination of post-processing effects that make it all feel like you really are viewing it through a security camera system. These effects are a bit inconsistent — at one time you’ll hear what sounds like the whine of an 80s drive or system spinning up; others reflect a sort of Windows 98SE aesthetic; your own interface looks like something out of Terminator. It isn’t cohesive, exactly, but the truth is neither are the systems onboard the ISS and other space hardware. And it’s a nice touch that lets the developer differentiate each part of the station and the different devices you connect to.

The modeling of the main character, Emma, is also excellent, though lapsing a bit into uncanny valley territory due to some clunky animations here and there. Maybe it’s just the microgravity. But one thing that can’t be faulted is the voice acting — Emma’s actor is brilliant, and other voices you encounter are also well done. Considering the amount of dialogue in the game this could have been a dealbreaker, but instead it’s a pleasure to hear. Ambient audio is likewise lovely — wear headphones.

The atmosphere is oppressive and tense, but not exactly scary; Don’t expect a xenomorph to bust out of any vents, but also don’t expect Space Station Simulator 2019. This is a serious, adult (though not explicit or violent) sci-fi narrative and, from what I’ve played, a smart and interesting one.

I haven’t finished the game (which was sent to me in advance for review… but I’ve been in an intense love/hate relationship with Mordhau), but based on what I’ve played I can easily recommend Observation to anyone with a mind to take on mildly difficult puzzles and experience a well-presented story in a carefully crafted environment. Space buffs will also enjoy. At under $25 right now (less with this week’s sale going on) I’d say it’s a no-brainer.

Observation released earlier this week on the Epic Games and PlayStation stores.

Daily Crunch: Tesla is profitable again

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. Tesla earns its first profit in two years

Tesla reported a profit in the third quarter, reversing seven consecutive quarters of losses. This is only the third time in the company’s history that it has achieved this milestone.

The turnaround was driven by sales of the Model 3. The company said customers are trading up their relatively cheaper vehicles to buy a Model 3, even though there is not yet a leasing option and the starting price was $49,000.

2. Trump has two ‘secure’ iPhones, but the Chinese are still listening

A new report by The New York Times puts a spotlight on the president’s array of devices and how he uses them. However, both Trump and a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry have denied the story.

(BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Red Dead Redemption 2 sets the bar high for the next generation of open world games

Tomorrow, Red Dead Redemption 2 goes live after months of breathless speculation. And according to Devin Coldewey and Jordan Crook, it’s as good as you’ve been hoping.

4. Facebook is building Lasso, a video music app to steal TikTok’s teens

Facebook is building a standalone product where users can record and share videos of themselves lip syncing or dancing to popular songs, according to information from current and former employees.

5. One-year-old Ribbon raises $225m to remove the biggest stress of home buying

The startup wants to replace the incredible stress of securing a mortgage during the home-buying process with a Ribbon Offer: If a buyer can’t secure a mortgage in time for close, Ribbon will pay for the house itself and give the buyer extra time to get financing.

6. Twitter beats Wall St Q3 estimates with $758M in revenue

Twitter reported a 29 percent increase in ad revenue to $650 million, and the company says total ad engagements increased 50 percent year over year. However, user growth didn’t quite match expectations.

7. Confirmed: ShopRunner acquires Spring, raises $40M

ShopRunner is announcing its first infusion of venture funding under CEO Sam Yagan, plus an acquisition of the shopping app Spring. Sources also say it’s readying a major overhaul of its mobile app.

Google Pixel 3 XL review

The smartphone arms race isn’t always pretty. The knock-down, drag-out fight between Apple and Samsung in particular has given rise to some nasty lawsuits and wincing commercials year in and out as the two companies invest millions in outdoing one another.

But Google is playing another game entirely. The company has never really been concerned with battling it out over flashy designs and specs. It’s really exactly the sort of approach you’d expect from a software-first company. I won’t go so far as to suggest that the Pixel 3 is a utilitarian phone, but it’s safe to say that the hardware exists in service of the company’s software innovations.

If it were like other companies, last week’s hardware event would have been an opportunity for Google to bask in processor speed and pixel density. Instead, it blew through such things. It was a strange spectacle to behold, really, as someone who’s been through a million of these things. The company more or less announced all of the products at once and moved onto more important topics like algorithms and machine learning.

For many intents and purposes, Google’s approach to smartphones is a breath of fresh air. From a more practical standpoint, the company’s path often means less radical hardware upgrades, year over year. If you’re wondering whether to upgrade from the the Pixel 2, the simple answer is: no, what are you, made out of money? But here’s Taylor’s slightly more nuanced approach to the question, if that’s your thing.

The fact is that Google has always been less interested than Apple or Samsung in keeping you beholden to the constant upgrade cycle. In fact, a number of the new photo features introduced this round will also be making their way onto older models, when possible. That’s not a promise all of the competition is willing to make.

The bottom line for products like the Pixel 3, Pixel Slate and Home Hub is that Google is intent on delivering the best hardware showcase for what it’s been working on over on the software side. That we happen to get one of the best Android smartphones out of the deal is a happy side effect.

Top level, here are the key hardware changes from the last version:

  • Bigger screen: This the single largest hardware change, so to speak. The Pixel 3 bumps up from five inches to 5.5 inches, while the XL moves up in the world from six to 6.3. Both a pretty sizable upgrade, all told.
  • Dual front-facing cameras: Seemingly a bit of a head scratcher, given that the back of the device sticks to one. More on that below.
  • Wireless charging: Better late than never, right?

We walked away from the Google event with both handsets in a branded tote bag that also included the new Pixel Stand. It’s clear that the company was looking to outfit reviewers with the best experience possible. As someone who cycles through a lot of phones for work, I’ve found myself gravitating toward larger phones.

With that in mind, most of the rest of this piece pertains to my experiences with the Pixel 3 XL. That said, Anthony kindly agreed to take the Pixel 3 out on the town for a photo safari, so the imaging samples in this review are taken from both handsets. Spec-wise, the two products are quite similar, beyond the standard array of things that come with a larger phone: screen, battery, et al.

There’s a sentiment you’ll read a lot when it comes to large flagships — that the company has done a good job keeping the footprint small, in spite of the massive screen size. Indeed, a lot of progress has been made on this front in recent generations, between thinner bodies and the rapid extinction of the bezel. That said, the Pixel 3 XL is a big phone by just about any measure.

Sure, Apple came from behind, only to rocket to the top of display sizes with the 6.5-inch XS Max. But the 6.3-inch XL isn’t far behind. It’s also a few fractions of a millimeter thicker than Apple’s massive handset at 7.9mm — though it still has nothing on the Note 9’s 8.8mm. Either way, the thing isn’t for the small of hand or limited in pocket space — and one-handed use probably isn’t in the cards if you’re not a professional basketball player.

Not much has changed aesthetically changed since the 2. And, indeed, the Pixel’s design language has become iconic in its own way, from the brightly colored power button to the dual-surface rear. The plasticky version found on prior generations has been replaced with a double glass surface — shiny up top and matte on the bottom.

It’s a subtle contrast and should help avoid slippage for those souls brave enough to go without a case. This last bit is a very real issue I’ve run into switching between the iPhone XS and Note 9, of late. Those shiny backs will slip right out of your hand if you’re not paying attention.

Up front, you’ll find that word of the Pixel 3 XL’s notch was, in fact, not exaggerated. It’s the stuff of legend. Turns out this is because of those dual front-facing cameras. Google is really committed to helping users up their selfie game here. At least that’s the immediate impact of that decision.

Dual cameras could have other benefits down the road, including depth sensing for things like augmented reality and, perhaps, face unlock. For now, however, it means taking pictures of yourself and friends at a semi-pro level.

The notch, it turns out, is a key design distinction between the 3 and 3 XL. The reasoning is — as with the rest of what Google’s hardware team did here — a pragmatic one. “With the small one,” VP of Product Management Brian Rakowski told me in an interview last week, “it turns out the space is just too small when you put the wide-angle lens in. It’s a narrower phone, so you have room for an icon or two, whereas on the bigger phone everything you need for the status icons is up there, and it’s a very good use of the space.”

In spite of its software embrace with Android Pie, Google is neither definitively pro or anti-notch. The company is, simply put, notch agnostic. If, however, you have a problem with that admittedly unsightly cutout, there’s a fix for thatActive Edge is back. It’s a feature that’s grown on me a bit since HTC introduced it as Edge Sense back on the U11 in May of last year. With a pinch of the phone’s frame, you can fire up Assistant. It’s one of several ways to invoke Google’s AI, but it definitely beats Samsung’s longtime insistence on including a devoted Bixby button. And besides, Google Assistant is actually, you know, useful.

Google’s generally done a good job listening to user feedback with its software features, and nowhere is that better represented than with the Adaptive mode for its screen color profiles. Last year’s Natural mode was met with some fairly widespread negative feedback for the effect in had in “muddying” the colors — most notably the reds, which ended up somewhere between blood-red and brown.

It was one of those things the company insisted was good for you, but ultimately user irritation won the day. Adaptive splits the difference, saturating colors for things like your Gmail icon, while keeping it in check for things like skin tone. It’s a pretty happy medium, all told, but if you’re not into it, you can always adjust things in settings.

The headphone jack is, of course, still gone. Google drew a line in the sand last year, after making a show keeping it on-board with the first generation. There’s a bit of a mea culpa here, however, in the form of souped up earbuds included in-box. The headphones are very clearly inspired by last year’s Pixel Buds.

That, much like the accessories themselves, is a bit of a mixed bag. The biggest upshot here is that the things plug directly into the USB-C port at the bottom. Sure the box still includes a headphone jack to USB adapter, but including headphones with a standard jack with a phone that doesn’t natively support the tech is downright bizarre.

The looping up top is a nice way to keep the buds in your ears without those bizarrely sharp fins that so many headphone makers rely on. I took the headphones for a run this morning and they didn’t fall out once.

The headphones also offer a number of the Pixel Buds’ software features free of charge, including easy access to Google Assistant and real-time translations through the Google Translate app.

The downside, on the other hand, is a major one. Even as far as free in-box headphones go, the Pixel USB-C earbuds are uncomfortable. This, I will be the first to admit, is a wholly subjective thing and highly dependent on the size and shape of our earholes. But man, the thing hurt to put in and take out, outdoing Apple’s last generation free buds for discomfort levels.

This is a space where companies can learn a lot from Samsung. The earbuds that ship with the Galaxy S9 and Note 9 are fantastic. I’m actually using them right now, plugged into my MacBook, in spite of not having a Samsung device anywhere near my person.

That said, the on-board sound has been improved, courtesy of the addition of front-facing speakers.

Interestingly, battery capacity has been increased for the Pixel 3 (from 2,700 to 2,915mAh), but not the Pixel 3 XL — in fact, it’s actually gone down slightly (from 3,520 to 3,430). That’s no doubt part of why the company was a bit cagey about this particular spec, only really mentioning battery as it pertains to the new charging tech.

As the company told me at the event, the ultimate goal is making sure battery life either stays constant or improves, courtesy of a combination of hardware and software. Battery was a focus for Android Pie, which should help offset some of the mAh loss on the XL. In my own testing, I was able to get just over a full day with standard usage — around 27 hours, all told. Not immaculate, but not bad.

Running the battery down did, however, give me occasion to appreciate the estimates that kick in when you’re critically low on juice. Android estimates when it thinks you’ll be completely SOL, shifting expectations as you change your usage. It’s either a lifesaver or source of anxiety depending on how you absorb such information.

The Pixel Stand, meanwhile, is a smart little accessory. At $79, it’s one I’d consider strongly if picking up the handset. Granted, it lacks the ambition of Apple’s three-product-charging AirPower, but among its other clear advantages is the fact I’ve held it in my hand and can confirm it’s a real thing that actually exists. The accessory takes advantage of that glass back to charge wirelessly via the Qi standard.

The stand is soft and silicon and fairly minimalist, designed to go unseen when not in use. When it is, however, it transforms the Pixel into a makeshift Home Hub, serving up Google Photos and bringing a visual component to Assistant. It’s a clever take of the charging stand — and hopefully a good enough excuse to stop you from falling asleep with your phone every night.

Okay, okay — it’s time to talk about the camera. We’ve got one of our reviewers doing a really in-depth testing on the Pixel camera, which you’ll be able to read as a standalone in the near future. For now, a couple of quick things to note.

The camera situation is a bit counterintuitive. There’s a second front-facing camera, while the back of the device bucks the industry standard of moving to two — or even three — lenses.

Rakowski again, “We look at all of the different configurations we can get. If we would have added another lens, it would have given us no benefit over what we get with one really good lens.”

That means, like the latest iPhone, the upgrades here are more software than hardware. If anyone gets the benefit of the doubt on that front, it’s Google. The company’s been making great strides in imaging, courtesy of silicon and machine learning, all of which were well demonstrated on the Pixel 2.

The Pixel 3 continues that grand tradition with some really impressive strides. Best of all, unlike many of the camera software tricks introduced by competitors in recent years, many of these additions are majorly useful day to day applications.

The camera software has HDR+ on by default — a smart move on Google’s part. While many users will buy the new Pixel based on photo performance, an even larger percentage of owners are unfamiliar with photog terms like HDR. I speak from experience, having personally enabled the feature on many friends’ phones.

In Google’s application, the feature snaps eight frames more or less instantly, digitally stitching them together in a matter than impressively captures uneven light settings in a single frame. In fact, this kind of burst shooting is the key to many of the Pixel 3’s best features.

Take Top Shot. The feature utilizes the many frames taken when making a Motion Photo. Once the shot is taken, swipe up and you can scroll through the images on a timeline to pick the frame you want. Generally, the AI does a solid job picking the ideal image, but the ability to customize (assuming users can locate the feature) is certainly welcome.

That customization carries over into features like Portrait Mode. The Pixel has long done a solid job with the feature in spite of not having a full two cameras for depth sensing. Instead, the phone uses a dual lens to approximate a depth map. And while camera suppliers would no doubt argue the benefit of including a full second or third camera, it’s hard to quibble with the results here. Once a shot is taken, you can manually adjust the blurred-out bokeh effect behind the subject.

[Standard v Super Res Zoom]

Super Res Zoom also stitches together pieces of a photo to offer up a zoomed-in version. Here the tech actually builds upon your own shaky hands, using algorithmic tech to fill in the holes. It’s still no match for the optical zoom of telephotos like the one found on the new iPhone, but it definitely improves upon stand zoom.

[Left: iPhone XS, Right, Google Pixel 3 XL]

Night Sight, meanwhile, uses multiple shots to improve the color on low-light shots. It’s a clever workaround for a lack of dual-apertures, doing a fine job of brightening up photos. That said, there’s still noticeable noise on photos shot in dark settings. 

More camera features worth noting:

  • Playground is a fun one-stop shop for augmented reality stickers. There are Star Wars and Avengers in there, among others. This is Google’s fun addition to the camera software. There are no Animojis or AR Emojis here, thanks to the lack of face detection, but it’s a fun glimpse at the future of in-camera AR.
  • Lots of additional selfie options. The dual front-facing cameras means wide-angle selfies, for cramming in a larger group. The camera software, meanwhile, corrects the standard fish-eye lens distortion.
  • Photobooth mode, meanwhile, will snap a shot when you smile.

  • Lens continues to impress. Check out the above shot of the thank you page from Adrian Tomine’s Killing and Day, which pops up faces and bios for those fellow authors mentioned.

A Google exec recently told me that price wasn’t really a factor when building hardware. In all things, however, the company is pragmatic. Google’s move away from the ongoing spec wars means the company isn’t chasing premium hardware for the sake of itself. That ultimately benefits the user from a pricing perspective.

Google doesn’t lead with the fact that the Pixel 3 starts at $799, but in a world full of flagships that start at $200 more, maybe it should. Sure, it’s not exactly cheap, but these days, it feels like a downright steal for a top-tier flagship.

Like its predecessor, the Pixel 3 isn’t about flash. It is, however, another solid showcase for Google’s impressive innovations.