Return of the Obra Dinn

“Return of the Obra Dinn” by Lucas Pope, Rob Townsend, Kamran Nikhad, Jeffrey Pillars, Callan McAuliffe, James McCreadie, Chris Sharpes, Nick Smith, Brian Stivale, Joshua Nicholson, Martin Halland, Ryan Laughton, Piotr Adamczyk, Finnigan Morris, Luis Alberto Acevedo, Ian Russell, Michael Drew, Kiran Patil, Debbie McCreadie, Yi-Chun Hsieh, Ta-Lun Shao, Yu-Fu Lin, Jhe-Jian Lin, Tim Simmons, Michelle Krusiec, Nikita Ordynskiy, Duncan Lawrence, Seumus Michael Maley, Michel Van Steenwijk, Brent Mukai, Vadim Proskryakov, Luke Marty, Stephen Fu, Chris McCann, Jo Ashe, Adam Beauchesnesp, Lee-Kuo Chen, Jung-Sheng Lin, Kun-Wei Lin, Josué Monchan, Rolf Klischewski, Words of Magic, Jogabilidade, Katherina Florinskaya, 8-4 Ltd., Keiko Fukuichi, Graeme Howard, John Ricciardi, gloc.team, Alain Dellepiane, Fabio Bortolotti, Lorenzo Bertolucci, Matteo Scarabelli, Ramón Méndez González, Jan Marcinkowski, Piotr Kulik, Hansen Chew, Sam Park, Jamie Diemond, Abhinav Sarangi, Monalisa Vyas, Lee Williams, Thomas Grip & Steffen Kabbelgaard Grønning.

“Early this morning of October 14th, 1807, the Obra Dinn drifted into port at Falmouth with damaged sails and no visible crew. As insurance investigator for the East India Company’s London Office, dispatch immediately to Falmouth, find means to board the ship, and prepare an assessment of damages.[… A] first-person mystery adventure based on exploration and logical deduction.”


Preface

This review and recommendation attempts to convince you to play “Return of the Obra Dinn”, a game I personally feel is a must-play for anyone with appreciation for mystery and deduction. It will contain minimal spoilers, but if you are convinced already, do not even read ahead. Trust me, stop here, and just play it. It will be slightly better if you go in with no preconceptions and get surprised by the main game mechanics. Otherwise, I hope I can paint a good picture of why I believe this game is an extraordinary thing and convince you to play it.

About the Obra Dinn

A mysterious boat drifts into port, with no signs of an alive crew in it. You are an insurance investigator hired to board it, assess the damages, and try to figure out how each one of the crew members did die. To succeed in this task, you have to use an amazing tool: The Memento Mortem. This clock, when used in front of a corpse, lets you travel back in time and wander around a freeze frame of the instant that person died. Also in your hands there is an empty book of records with the names of each of the tripulants on the boat. It acts like a kind of spooky Pokédex, as you have to fill in the details about the dead’s untimely demise and pair names with pictures. Just that idea alone makes my bones tingle.

The Memento Mortem lets you interact with the corpses you find aboard the Obra Dinn

You will wander around an eerie grimy ship’s decks and bowels, which are deliciously realistic and accurate, looking at the map to identify each passenger’s chamber. You will learn about the people who lived on the vessel, all by using the Memento Mortem to jump from corpse to corpse, from gruesome assassination to unfortunate accident, uncovering the series of awful disasters that left the Obra Dinn devoid of life.

The game is not too interested in telling a deep story, but more about seeping in a vibe, the feeling of uncanniness of what happens at sea, of sailors and sirens and mutiny. The diverse crew members drink and chat and play cards, they live on the decks and die in every corner, either at the hands of their fellow men or at the will of the weirdest fates.

The static image of a man being shot, with the bullet and the blood floating, frozen in time

It is not a point and click adventure or a graphic novel, but instead a ship-shaped puzzle box with tons of layers that is asking the player to figure out how to open it up or piece it back together. The game feels like one of those corkboards, cluttered with tons of images and notes, messily connected with pins and ropes. Every discovery in “Return of the Obra Dinn” feels uniquely logical and yours, and it is contantly surprising how such a tangled system can have these small moments where a few pieces fit and you reach a clean conclusion, like “This man is clearly the surgeon of the ship.” or “This woman must be the captain’s wife.”

If there is something apart from the premise and the gameplay, that is completely special, it surely is the aesthetics. Both, the amazing soundtrack and the strange visuals, especially the paper-like dithered shader that Lucas Pope put together, are something else. They work wonders with everything the game wants to be, and make you feel the grunginess of the setting so deeply.

How to design a mystery

If you are a fan of mystery games, movies or books, or especially if you have tried or dreamed of designing such media artifacts, you know how hard of a task that is. There is a crux behind it all: You need to give the player a bunch of data without framing it in a way that they feel lead on, and then give them a tool to express their deductions so the game can validate them. But you cannot code it all. If the players have an inventory, they will expect every item in there to be relevant. If there is a place they cannot go, they will assume they do not need to. Mark Brown talks extensively about the issues when designing deduction games (including “Return of the Obra Dinn”) in his video “What Makes a Good Detective Game?”, which I can only highly recommend you to watch if you are interested in this topic. You can also watch his specific appraisal of this game, “How Return of the Obra Dinn Works”, which is where most of the ideas for this review come from.

Anyone who has played a mystery point and click adventure and has felt stuck after trying every option and combination, understands how frustrating this experience can be. Lucas Pope comes around this mess of a design problem by going back to the essence of the genre and throwing a bunch of good ideas at it.

For example, there are no clues in “Return of the Obra Dinn”. You see the world through your own eyes and ears, almost nothing is highlighted as important or put into your inventory. You are the judge of what is important and what is not. Your position as this inspector, this magical overseer, justifies very beautifully the limitations of what you can and cannot do, and you quickly accept how the Memento Mortem works and the limited peeks at the past it delivers.

Also, there are no leading questions when making deductions. The book you are tasked of completing has slots you need to fill, with medical descriptions of how each sailor was ripped or stabbed or drowned. You need to solve the causes of death of the sailors by using a word choice system that gives almost complete freedom, and you need to solve three full fates in order for the game to give you confirmation, making it virtually impossible to guess your way into the solution.

You slowly fill the book with the info you gather about the crew and their fate

That is what makes me feel like “Return of the Obra Dinn” is just one of those beautifully designed games that knows what it wants to do and turns all the right knobs, and that will be remembered into the future, especially by designers and mystery game enthusiasts, hoping someone takes some inspiration from it and gives even another spin to all the design innovations. We can all be excited for this moment. [PLAY]

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