Return of the Obra Dinn: A Review

Like Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn puts the player in a mundane role while providing a wholly unique experience. In 1807, the Obra Dinn returns to port after it had gone missing for five years. With no crew on board, your role as insurance agent is to assess what transpired on the ship. Your only tools are a magical stopwatch and logbook which you will use to investigate the fate of the ship.

The first magical item, the stopwatch, is used when you come across any remains of a dead sailor. It transports you back in time to a still image of how that person died. You will have about thirty seconds to walk around the scene and observe what happened before the game pulls you back out. Then, the log book opens and records what you have discovered so far. The goal is to determine the fate of everyone on the ship – how they died and who, if anyone, caused it.

You may encounter someone getting hit by a fellow crew member with a hammer. Is the person wielding the hammer the captain, the first mate, or maybe a top crewman. They definitely got killed by getting hit with a hammer. But as you continue to the next scene, you may see them lying at the edge of the scene recuperating in a bed. Did this person die, or was the death scene someone else’s death scene?

Mystery games have, in particular, been pretty poor at presenting something to actually solve. Besides Her Story, I can’t think of any game that was really about solving a mystery. Like a book or movie, a mystery game is more about being lead along by the writers than actually doing any sleuthing yourself. While this is inherently not a bad thing, it does not feel like you actually solved anything. Even in Her Story, the task is finding as many pieces of information that you can and then piecing it together to create a picture of what really happened. As the game doesn’t reveal whether your ideas or theories about the case were right, the ending is what you make it.

Return of the Obra Dinn is different. The game is not linear, instead there are multiple clues that point a player towards the correct conclusion. Multiple clues litter each scene although it will take deduction and attention to detail to spot them. When you have correctly identified a crew member and their cause of death, the game confirms it by making the notes in the magical log book permanent. Since three correct answers are required, it makes it really hard to guess your way through.

The experience of playing through it really feels like a mystery, where the player has full responsibility to solve the mysteries at hand. Lukas Pope has said that there are enough clues that no guesses are required to identify anyone. Despite this, I did guess twice when my own deductions led me to a place where two characters could be either one or the other. I felt a bit cheap but the responsibility was mine for not confirming the people involved before I entered them in the book. After finishing the game, I took a look at a few guides and saw that the writers had followed different logical paths based on the things they had observed. I find this a little fascinating and it made me wonder what details I had missed about the crew members of the Obra Dinn.

As you uncover the fates of its crew you also piece together the story of the ship and its final journey. The magical log book contains chapters which breaks down the scenes you come across into a digestible and linear narrative. The story itself has turns and there are more than a few scenes that unfold that will hook the player to continue but as a whole it serves mainly as a backdrop for your own investigation. There isn’t much to spoil because the story is based on tropes and cliches that are common in most pirate and other sea tales from the time period. The whole thing becomes very familiar very soon. There’s a giant sea monster or two. Humans are greedy and stupid. Women are mostly in the background. Foreigners are “odd” and “mystical”. There is a version of this game with a more compelling and less cliche story that has more to say than the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

Partly this shortcoming comes about from the mechanical premise of the game and its presentation. It is difficult to provide detail with an intentional lo-fi art style so any environmental storytelling has to be clear and simple, which is it, but it also makes it limited in scope. On top of that, the stopwatch only gives us a small glimpse into a character’s life – the moment before their death – which isn’t a lot to work with when building a narrative. Therefore, it is the dramatic moments that must propel the story and with 60 character’s deaths to depict, you kind of need a giant kraken to swipe a few off the deck in one go.

Where the story does hit on something is at the end. After discovering the fate of all the crew members, the game runs through each death you have recorded. A monetary dispensation or fine is assigned to each crew member which their surviving families will have to deal with. You are an insurance agent after all and the real goal of the game is to determine who owes what to whom. Obra Dinn makes you feel excited about finding another dead body, and then reduces them to a monetary value after your work is done.

Like Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game about a mundane job that is affected both in its game play and in the emotions evoked. In both games, the story is just a backdrop and it is what you do while playing that really matters. In an interview with Gamasutra, Lukas Pope talked about why he did not do a lot of marketing for Return of the Obra Dinn:

“So for Obra Dinn I focused more on how can I make this game different enough from other games, and Papers, Please is sort of like this too, make it different enough from other games that If you want this kind of game you pretty much just gotta buy this one game.”

Well, Mr. Pope, you are two for two.

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