In a world where games are just making weaker iterations of themselves across multiple sequels (I’m looking at you, Fallout 76), games from the indie scene provide a breath of fresh air that is second-to-none. So when I heard people from gaming websites I trust were calling Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn a Game-of-the-Year contender, I sat up in my chair a bit. Lucas Pope was the genius behind the work-a-day border guard simulator Papers, Please that blew people’s minds in 2013 (mine included), so to hear he’d put out another solid at-bat, I had to give it a try.
The story behind Return of the Obra Dinn: the year is 1803, and the cargo ship, the Obra Dinn, leaves England heading to the East Indies. Due to a series of…ahem…misfortunes…the entire ship’s 60 passengers die to various means. You play the role of head insurance adjuster for the East Indies Trading Company, and your job is to determine the fates of all 60 crew and passengers by utilizing a strange magical pocketwatch that allows you to go back in time and watch a single snapshot of the event surrounding someone’s death for 30 seconds.
Just go with it.
Over the course of the 6-8 hour playthrough, which I crashed through in two gaming sessions, you pick through every inch of all five decks of the ship, hunting down corpses and remains to use your magic pocketwatch on. You watch the disaster unfold, and then attempt to identify the victim, the means of how they were killed, and who (or what) killed them. During your playthrough, you will reconstruct the fated final voyage of the Obra Dinn and its crew in painstaking detail so by the end, you’ve got a pretty good idea of how it all went down.
The pocketwatch isn’t the only tool in your inventory. You’ve got a journal in chronological order of each event on the ship that fills in as you discover corpses, as well as a ship manifest and three crew photos which you will burn into your brain going over them countless times.
I have to stop my chatter to talk about the game aesthetic. One of the things that will easily set Return of the Obra Dinn apart in people’s minds is the game’s specific graphical style. Yes, in 2018, the whole game is drawn in head-scratchingly bizarre design choice of “1-bit monochromatic” graphical style. What in the hell is that? Well, imagine firing up a Macintosh computer in the 1980s and playing a game from back then. Lucas and his team lean into it pretty heavily; in the graphical options, they give you the choice of choosing different retro colored looks, including the Commodore 64 or IBM. As someone who grew up on those games, the visuals gave me a warm feeling in the bottom of my heart, especially when you could see them trying to show the visual dynamic of explosions with a series of sharp, angular lines that might as well have read “BOOM”. They stretch that graphical style to the limit, and it works beautifully.
The game also warns you up front that you are not going to have enough information to identify every corpse in the game without deduction, and they mean it. I don’t want to spoil some of the clues that you could use to help identify them, but if you’re expecting there to be a lot of unnecessary uses of people’s names, you can forget about it. I think I heard someone’s name used 3-4 times in total, and a lot of the time, they’re talking about someone else on the ship. You really are going to have to turn on your brain juice for this game. I made it to about 48 out of 60 before I had to start looking up tips on how to find the rest of them. Fortunately, there are walkthroughs on the internet that give out subtle hints to point you in the right direction as opposed to telling you outright (I specifically used this awesome guide: gameplay.tips, big thanks to those folks).
Return of the Obra Dinn is not without its faults. Every batch of three people you correctly identify in the book, the game will stop and verify your information as correct so you can cross them off your list of future corpse identification. The problem there is that towards the end when information was becoming scarce and I’d been over the boat a few dozen times, you find yourself in the book just making wild guesses as to people’s identities in the hopes that something clicks. For example, the “topmen” crew (the folks in charge of the rigging and sails) have a team of four Chinese sailors whose names are NEVER USED ONCE IN THE GAME. I knew how each one of them died and by who, but I was literally just taking the four names and switching them in and out of each other’s bios hoping the game would tell me I was right eventually.
The other major issue is that there is a lot of overlap on some of the death descriptions. If a scene depicts someone falling from the rigging overboard during a storm, there is both the option of marking him as having fallen to his death from the rigging or falling overboard and drowning, but only one of them seems to be correct. The number of times I had what appeared to have all the correct information, but the game wanted the cause of death to be “strangled” versus “choked” (look, I’m trying not to get into spoilers here, I promise this makes sense) after I finally looked it up, I’d throw my hands in the air like, “Oh, come ON now, I HAD that one.”
Return of the Obra Dinn is also a game about the journey, not the destination. Upon unlocking the final chapter (only unlocked after you successfully identify almost everyone on the ship), you are treated to a somewhat anemic “surprise ending” where you are able to see the fates of the rest of the crew. The unfortunate reality is by that point, there are only a handful of people left on the ship, and it’s instantly apparent how each one of them dies. Upon the completion of your filing your final report with the East Indies Trading Company, it may as well read, “Good job, you won!” and roll credits. But seeing that end title screen after thinking when I started, “Oh, lawd, how in the hell am I going to identify all these cats?” was the game’s actual reward. I was proud of myself, especially when I was able to decipher some of the game’s trickier puzzles.
I’m literally sitting here like, “Well, NOW what am I going to play?” I want more Return of the Obra Dinn. I want more of that mind-stretching detective work, analyzing clues, making deductions. It took Lucas Pope five years to finish Return of the Obra Dinn, so I guess I’m going to have to wait on the copycats to come along and strip mine the hell out of the concept. What I am saying is that if you’re a connoisseur of video gaming and want something a little different from the usual Red Bull-infused round of Fortnite clones out there right now, you owe it to yourself to plop down that $20 and start unraveling the mystery of the Return of the Obra Dinn.