Imagine a logic puzzle designed by Edgar Allan Poe, the creator of the detective story. It would be a specific type of puzzle, similar to the Zebra Puzzle or Einstein’s Riddle. A great example of it in gaming is the Jindosh Riddle in Dishonored 2. The basic principle is that you have to infer crucial information about a number of characters based on sparse data through logical deduction and associative thinking. Now imagine a highly intricate and richly textured mystery adventure game based on this imaginary Poe's Riddle. That's my definition of Lucas Pope's Return of the Obra Dinn.
The cargo ship Obra Dinn was lost at sea in 1803. A few years later, it somehow drifted into a port city in the south of England with no visible crew. The premise could easily be the basis for one of Poe’s Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque. As an insurance investigator working for the East India Company, it falls upon you to assess the damages. A rough old sailor conveys you to the ship, asking impertinent questions as he rows. You only hear it as voice-over with subtitles. As the first-person perspective fades from black, you behold the world in monochromatic shades. The 1-bit rendering is a bold stylistic choice, though it won’t be easy on the eyes of some players.
Before you begin your investigation and assessment, you open a wooden case, as instructed by the Company. It contains a thick volume with an enigmatic introduction by a character who goes by the initials H.E., and a pocket watch. Memento Mortem, the Latin expression appears as a caption when you pick it up. Remember Death. The watch has a skull on its cover. As you come upon the first remains of a corpse on the main deck, the death watch comes up, and through it, you witness the final moment of its living soul. The atmosphere is established in an impeccable fusion of distinctive level design and haunting soundtrack. The first piece of the puzzle is down.
There is no explanation as to how the death watch operates. It somehow allows its bearer to witness not only the last moment of a corpse’s living soul but also to explore the surroundings and see other living souls in that frozen moment. It also leads you to other corpses. That’s how you begin to build a network of departed souls and their disjointed memories. The first corpse called out to the captain, who opened the cabin door and shot him. You associate the captain with a face, and you know he killed this yet nameless man. It sounds simple at first, but it's a deceptive sense of simplicity that soon gets thorny.
The volume contains the information that you will have to pore over and double-check many, many times. First and foremost, you have a list of the crew and the passengers, with all their names, nationalities, and occupations. Second, you have three drawings made by the ship’s resident artist. As you center on a person seen through the death watch, you can locate them in a drawing. There’s a lot of context in the drawings that allows you to infer the occupation of a certain person. The captain is the easiest to infer right from the beginning. He is in a position of higher authority, surrounded by an entourage of officers, who are obviously his first mate, second mate, and so on.
More importantly, before each frozen scene, there is some dialogue, or, at the very least, some noises. At one point, you find the remains of a corpse, and all you’ll hear is the sound of a man farting and moaning, then something crushing him right after. The dialogues are extremely important to infer the identities of the people involved in a scene. That’s when the Zebra Puzzle elements come into focus. Let’s say someone refers to a character as “Frenchman” and suggests they are professional mates. Now you go to the list of names and see who hails from France. Then you can deduce what their professional relationship is. These chains of deductions and associations become very satisfying to iron out as you progress.
Through attentive observation and deduction by elimination, you begin to ascertain the facts and solve their fates. A certain passenger shot a certain crewman. A collapsed mast hit another passenger in the head. A senior crewman stabbed a young fellow. The list of possible causes of death is exhaustive, even if you won’t use most of them. Every third correct deduction is recognized by the game, and achievements pop up for certain numbers of fates you solve. Some deductions take quite a few tries, as the clues become exponentially more complex and easy to miss. Obra Dinn relies heavily on your attention and persistence to check and double-check scenes for clues. It trusts in your intelligence, and that's something very few games do these days.
The ship’s journey divides into ten chapters, but you go through them in a mostly nonlinear progression. One chapter won’t be accessible until the end, and that’s only if the player manages to solve all the characters’ fates except two. It's possible to get the essential facts and leave the ship, turning in a half-complete appraisal. Of course, you won’t get to access the mysterious and bewildering missing chapter, and the ending will be rather underwhelming. You can use that ending to fill some blanks in your investigation, though. Then you rewind to the moment before you turned in the appraisal so you can try again.
In my first playthrough, it took me 12 hours of deep concentration to solve all the fates of the crew and passengers, with very few breaks. It was in the final stage as I tried to solve the fates of all those minor missing souls that I found it hard to retain momentum. For the first five to ten hours, I was deeply immersed, glued to the screen, mystified by the brilliance and uniqueness of its gameplay and atmosphere. After ten straight hours of playtime, I was physically and mentally tired. So I resorted to some random combinations, and sometimes that worked. I managed to solve every single fate, even though I missed some clues. There's never even the slightest suggestion that you should brute force your way through the investigation, though. In fact, the game tells you to wait until you've witnessed the facts through the death watch.
There was one remaining achievement, so I tried another five-hour playthrough the day after. I realized that many clues I missed at first seemed obvious during this second run, with all of the hindsight and none of the tunnel vision. I also understood the characters’ motivations better. Although the story remains the same in every playthrough, there was a sense of renewed novelty in my second playthrough. It's like when you reread a great book and find yourself delving into deeper layers of meaning, realizing perspectives that you believe no one else noticed.
There is a supernatural undercurrent to the narrative, and that’s where it stands out. I don’t know if Lucas Pope was intentionally trying to conjure up this atmosphere of an Edgar Allan Poe story, but it’s definitely there. The process through which the player unravels the mystery of the Obra Dinn resembles the detective Dupin’s thought process in stories like The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There is also the general Gothic sea travel atmosphere that reminded me of stories like MS. Found in a Bottle and A Descent into the Maelström.
It's this literary quality that gives the story an edge that will linger in your mind. Whereas many games play like interactive movies, Obra Dinn plays rather like an interactive novel. Like all great novels, it's subtle, suggestive. It doesn't hit you over the head with a message or a statement. Through its obscure scenes and dialogue fragments, it paints a perplexing tale of horror, loss, and redemption. Sadly, it might come across as obscure due to how understated its denouement feels. It relies on an intricate visual subtext that most gamers won’t be interested in or even manage to parse. I can't get more specific than that without spoiling the story, but if you like your games and stories neatly explained with every loose thread tied up nicely, Obra Dinn is not the game for you. And that's fine.
That’s not to say that this is a passive game where the narrative is everything. Without the player, there is no narrative to unfold, only an empty ship. The structure of each of the death watch scenes becomes increasingly complex, but it relies on the player's ability to connect the dots. You start realizing there’s much more to it than the immediate scene you see, with other events happening in the background. What you see can be deceptive. As you revisit scenes over and over, you find many details you missed at first. Everything becomes more intricate through the ship's dense level design.
Now, the 1-bit rendering art direction is definitely not for everyone, even with the graphics options for Macintosh, IBM, or C64 hues. Would Obra Dinn be the same amazing game if it had a photorealistic or normal rendering style? Yes, but I don't think this stylistic choice was a whimsical decision. It serves a purpose in both design and atmosphere. When the game shows you the frontispiece of a book just as it was in the 19th century, there's a sense of place and time. You're not in Kansas anymore. The 1-bit rendering has the same exact purpose. It's like when we see an old photograph and we kind of imagine that people saw each other in black-and-white too.
Return of the Obra Dinn is structurally flawless and beautifully executed in gameplay and technical flair. It's not without its minor flaws as a product, like all great games, but it rises above them. The writing, voice acting, and soundtrack are all first-rate, full of gusto, vim, and verve. Lucas Pope is a virtuoso game designer whose mature use of the medium transcends a crude sense of fun or bang-for-the-buck. This is craftsmanship of the highest order. Gaming as a medium often tries to seek validation through comparisons with cinema, and we often see critics use embarrassingly banal expressions such as “Citizen Kane of video games.” Return of the Obra Dinn shows there’s more to the medium than lurking the shadow of the seventh art and that it should aspire to something more ambitious and yet undiscovered.
- Mesmerizing Immersion
- Multilayered Puzzle Design
- Literary Narrative
- Auteur Vision
- Elevates The Medium
- Hard to Retain Final Momentum