Observation Is Awesome So We Interviewed Its Creator Jon McKellan
No Code Studio is an indie studio to watch as it continues to carve a name through the industry with each title it releases. The third and latest of which, Observation, offered a unique experience to the player. An experience that tasked them with inhabiting the A.I systems of a space station in crisis, all the while watching the crew struggle to survive through the station’s camera systems. Observation offers a riveting story, realistic puzzles and an expertly crafted homage to the sci-fi greats of our times. Keen to learn more, I got in touch with Writer, Director and Artist Jon McKellan to learn more.
I figured we could start by learning a little more about yourself, Jon. What’s your history with writing and how did you end up mixing into the games scene?
“I actually began life in the games industry as a 2D graphic artist. I trained in Graphic Design and Motion Graphics, and after a few years freelancing, I got into the games industry as a motion graphics designer for UI. I didn’t realise I could ever get a job in games with my skill set at the time. Once I was in, I got involved in as many areas as I could, including marketing/trailers. After a long stint on Alien: Isolation, where I went from 2D artist, to Lead UI Artist, to leading the DLC team, I slowly realised I had my own stories to tell and games to make. In 2015 I set up No Code with my childhood friend and audio designer Omar Khan, and got to writing Observation.
Technically Observation is the first full production I wrote, but whilst we were waiting on (hoping for) the game being picked up by a publisher, I wrote and directed Stories Untold and we shipped that in the middle of things. I’ve never thought of myself as a writer at all, always a visual artist, but I think I’m now somehow both!”
Observation has proven to be a quintessential sci-fi thriller. Something that cannot have been easy to get right. Was there a clear vision for the look and feel of Observation from the get go? Or was it a tougher process to narrow the focus, moving forward, at the start?
“There was a very clear vision in my head of how the story would play out, look, and feel, right from the beginning. That presentation, perspective and style of storytelling was the anchor point for everything else to orbit around. It’s hard to get right, but anytime I felt like I was spinning away, that original vision (and subsequent mock up videos and prototypes) become my centre to pull me back in. Looking at the prototypes, we’ve stayed pretty close to the vision throughout.”
Playing Observation, as a sci-fi fan, I was reminded of so many wonderful things. 2001: A Space Odyssey first and foremost. But it also brought back memories of Gravity and Interstellar. Did you have any direct inspiration from movies like these to make a space station interior grounded in reality yet, ever so slightly futuristic? In other words, what was your research process in building the Observation?
“Absolutely – the inspiration on this game was far more often films and books than it was games. I had decided at the very beginning that for this to feel somehow believable, it had to be contemporary. Not set in 2177 or feature unfathomable magic technology. There’s certainly a place for all that, but keeping things close to home gave the story much more weight, as well as giving the more bizarre and mind-expanding aspects more contrast. Gravity, Interstellar and Arrival were the most modern influences for the action, but I also studied a lot of ‘found footage’ movies like Europa Report and Paranormal Activity series. I’m not usually a fan of them, but they taught me a lot about telling stories at a distance. Almost like theatre instead of film. “
Your name pops up a lot on the opening credits of Observation. Artist, Writer, Director – clearly you’re a man of many talents. Can you tell us a bit about how such a jack-of-all-trades role comes into shape in a games studio? Sounds hectic!
“It was hectic – I feel bad sometimes that I come up a few times, and don’t want to come off as grandstanding. I just feel that no matter who or what, credit goes where credit is due. We’re a small team so there is a lot of jack-of-all-trade work going on, but I was involved in so many facets and it was pretty exhausting. I’m not sure I’d ever do quite so much again unless I had to, for my own health. Part of it was budget and scope; we couldn’t afford to hire another person for X, but I knew I could do it myself, and I knew exactly what I wanted, so I cut out the middleman. It wasn’t always successful, but honestly there is a lot in the game that simply wouldn’t exist if I didn’t take it on myself. Necessity more than pride for sure. Adding voice acting to the list was new though!”
The voice acting in Observation is spectacular, thanks in no small part to Kezia Burrows. Was it easy to get her on board after working with her for the role of Amanda Ripley?
“I met Kez on the mocap shoots of Alien, and she’s incredible. We kept in touch ever since, just on social and things like that. We hadn’t yet cast Emma in the game and at one point needed some quick dialogue for an internal demo. I messaged her and asked if she had any spare time to do a few lines of dialogue remotely to help us out and she was happy to. She delivered the audio to us and I was blown away – the answer to who should be Emma was right in front of me the whole time, it was perfect! So I called her up and asked if she’d be interested in taking it on and thankfully she was.”
How was it working with Kezia? A few friends of mine in the acting industry tell me she’s a delight. But as a Director, I’d love to know how your working relationship with her was.
“She is indeed a delight to work with; easy going, talented, willing to improvise. We had her come up to Glasgow for a few days for some mocap and a main read through, then did a lot of reshoots and alternate versions as the story or game objectives would evolve through development. She had her own studio setup so was able to work remotely, and in a way she kind of became part of the dev team. We’d have some bugs where what Emma said in the script, and what the objective of the game/puzzle was, were mismatched. I’d send her some new lines and Kez would rattle off the replacements and get them to us really quickly. It was all very fluid.
Once we had a really good understanding of who Emma was, how she spoke and behaved, I didn’t even have to direct her for the reshoots and alt takes. I just gave her a list of lines, the context, and some brief notes on Emma’s emotional or narrative state at the time and off she went. She really made Emma her own and the script and performance is all the better for it. On top of that, this was the first game I took a voice role in that played it serious, and Kezia gave me advice and the confidence to do that. This was the first time I’ve acted in a scene with someone else, in-person, and couldn’t have gone better.”
The idea of watching a story unfold from many camera perspectives must have presented you with a giddying set of options for storytelling. After finishing development on Observation, do you feel at all that this method of storytelling in games could be explored even further?
“Potentially, but whilst it provided a lot of options, it is super-specific to that game and it’s perspective. It’s become another tool in the belt though, for sure. I have another idea for story that could be told in a similar way, but I don’t think it would have that same magic. Plus, I always want to do something new or different – I would hate to rehash an idea.”
Have you ever played Five Nights at Freddie’s and was this an influencing factor in Observation’s gameplay?
“I couldn’t play it – it terrified me! I don’t handle horror well, which is ironic I guess! I’m fine with films, but with games, if you make me pan a camera knowing that something might be there, the suspense kills me. At least with my own games I know what to expect!”
Can you talk at all about what the deciding factors were in yourself, and others at No Code, walking away from Creative Assembly / Sega and doing your own thing?
“It was a combination of things really. CA was a great place and I miss many of the people there, but I was too far from home, my wife and I were about to have another baby, and an opportunity came up to move back near home to Edinburgh and work on Red Dead 2. I took that, mainly as a way to be closer to family and still be in a good job, but within a few months realized what I really wanted to do. Rockstar North was amazing and full of lovely people, but it’s huge and I would never have any tangible impact on the areas that truly interested me.
So that’s when I decided to set up No Code to make Observation (among other things) and specifically make games with a small team. Some other good friends from Alien had since moved on too, and I got in touch to see if they would be interested in lending their talents, and really glad they did. It’s only me in the No Code studio that worked on Alien, but we have several others regularly helping out, especially on the art side, it’s been great.”
On the official No Code website, the question of VR crops up in the FAQ. We can see you played around a lot with the idea of VR while developing Observation. What was the determining factor that led you to stick with classic screen gameplay in the end?
“We prototyped a VR version for a few months at different stages in the project, but it really didn’t work. Fundamentally, it created a massive void between the player and the idea of them being SAM. VR is great for making you feel like you are in a space, but we wanted you to feel like you were the space. Like you observed from a distance. VR is not so good for that! The first time someone tried the VR version they said “Oh so you get to be one of the crew?” because looking around with your head felt so natural and human-like. The limits of the CCTV camera movement absolutely place you in that mood, and the VR destroyed that. I can see why people think it might be really cool to be on the space station, but not as SAM, and not in this story.”
Is there any kind of appetite within the studio to work on a VR title?
“Definitely. I’m not sure if we will any time soon, but if the right story or experience comes along that would suit, we’ll do it. I don’t want to set out to make a VR game and work out what we’re going to do after the fact, has to be the other way round.”
We’ve now had two very smartly written horror titles from yourself and the team at No Code. Is horror a genre you want to lean into exclusively as a studio? Or would there be room for applying your writing style to other types of games?
“It’s funny, we set out to make thrillers rather than horrors, and both times it came out much scarier that we thought, even at the point of releasing the game. We’re discovering that because we know everything that can and will happen in the game, we’re immune to a huge part of the tension building! I enjoy writing these thriller-horrors, I like challenging the mind a bit with the more bizarre themes and stuff that feels at the edge of your comprehension. I want to keep exploring that, but also switch gears with the genres we’re exploring from a gameplay point of view. Doing that will change the stories too, so excited to just keep building really!”
Super Arc Light was No Code’s first shipped title, available for iOS and Android
Going from Super Arc Light to Stories Untold was quite the graphical leap! Of course this would set the bedrock for the amazing look of Observation. Was there a strong desire to move away from mobile quickly, in order to make games with a stronger narrative focus? I get the impression, as a writer, you have many great ideas and we have yet to see more amazing stories from you.
“Yeah it’s quite an odd back catalogue we have now! We started No Code to make Observation. That was the project I was pitching from the start, but Super Arc Light came out of a game jam and was something we could make and release whilst developing Observation’s various prototypes for publishers. I’m definitely more drawn to narrative games and writing, but really it’s just about whatever has gotten me excited at the time! If we have what we feel is a good idea, we’ll try to do something with it. We’ve got a few ideas for what is next, and they are all quite wildly different from one another, so we’ll see what happens!”
Thank you Jon!
Observation has been critically referred to as one of the smartest games of 2019 so far. It offers clever puzzle integration within the station and even within you, the player, as you inhabit SAM. Although not all is as it should be. Our story’s protagonist fights for survival on an increasingly unstable space station. Is she truly alone? Where have her crew mates gone, and just how exactly has the Observation ended up where it is? Even SAM doesn’t know. But with smart player choices, we can all find out as Observation is available for purchase today on PC and PS4
A dyed in the wool gamer from a very young age. Nick is engaged in a never-ending battle, trying to decide if he wants to play games or write about them. A huge Witcher fan, lord of the opinion piece and lover of the shiniest graphics in all the land!