I was one of the smartest kids in my elementary school. This did not continue into middle or high school, and definitely not into college, where I was spectacularly average, but for a couple of years I was on top of the world because I was a “gifted” child, which meant that once a week I was sent to a special class with the other gifted kids where we would work through logic grid puzzles handed out by our teacher.
These puzzles, if you’re not familiar, tasked the solver with identifying a group of people based on a series of written clues. Who was who at the birthday party? “Joe wore red and was seated next to the girl in green.” “Nancy wore purple and doesn’t eat meat.” “Annie would never be caught dead in green.” By filling a grid with X’s and O’s to track people’s possible identities and attributes, you’d eventually arrive at a full picture of the scenario. Who wore what? Who ate what? Who brought which gift?
Now take that birthday party puzzle and replace it with a ghost ship full of gruesome deaths and you’ve got the basic idea behind Return of the Obra Dinn, the newest game from Lucas Pope. Best known for his work on Papers, Please, Pope is a solo developer who crafts experimental games that refuse to stick to tried-and-true interfaces and methods of interaction. Obra Dinn follows that tradition, taking a scenario that could have played out as a bog standard adventure game and approaching it from a very different angle. The result is one of the few games where the detective work requires real, honest-to-God detecting to produce results, and for the most part that is extraordinarily satisfying.
In 1802, the merchant ship Obra Dinn set out from London for the Orient with 60 souls aboard. The next year, it failed to appear at its port of call at the Cape of Good Hope. Then in 1807, the ship drifted into view near Falmouth and was discovered to be void of all life. Piles of bones, scraps of cloths, and old bloodstains dot the ship. Clearly, some ugliness went down. You play an insurance inspector for the East India Company who is tasked with boarding the ship and determining what befell its personnel – in the exhausting detail that befits a claims investigator. This means that you have to not only ascertain what happened on the ship, you also have to record the identity of every member of the crew, the specific method of their demise, and the identity of their killer (if any). It’s a big task, especially since seamen of the day weren’t given to carrying photo IDs.
Luckily, you’ve been given a couple of gifts by a mysterious benefactor: a book containing information about the vessel, and a pocketwatch engraved with a skull, which for some reason allows the bearer to revisit the instant of a person’s death. So you board the Obra Dinn, armed with a crew roster, a collection of group sketches, a glossary of nautical terms and jobs, and a map of the boat’s layout, setting out to determine 60 identities and 60 causes of death.
As you explore the ship, you’ll encounter the remains of its deceased. Pointing the pocketwatch at each will load a short vignette – a few seconds of audio and then the sudden reveal of their exact instant of death, frozen in a gruesome tableau that can be examined at leisure. You move around freely in first-person using traditional keyboard/mouse or gamepad controls, peering like a morbid voyeur at a knife fight between two men, for example, the blood squirting from the neck of the poor soul who lost. In the vicinity, you can see others watching from their quarters or peering out from around corners. Some of the memories have larger scopes than others, allowing you to see what’s happening on the deck above or below, catching small glimpses of life aboard the ship.
There are no diaries to pore through, no audio logs to play, no conveniently labeled portraits hanging in the captain’s quarters. But through the painstaking and clever disbursement of information, these glimpses into the past are enough to solve the mystery: Hmm, this guy is well-dressed and often seems to appear standing right next to the Captain. And here he is with someone following close behind, carrying two plates of food. Is this one of the ship’s mates and his steward? But which one? First Mate, Second Mate, Third? This fellow’s bunk has a scimitar hanging from the wall near it; could he be the Persian seaman listed in the crew register? Someone said the name Brennan during the cutscene, so Brennan must be one of the men present… and so on.
Causes of death are usually easier to figure out, though you have to be sure to identify the killer as well. So-and-so was knifed by so-and-so, or electrocuted, or burned to death, or decapitated. The game features a hilariously long and macabre list of verbs from which to choose.
After you’ve correctly resolved any three fates, the game will chime in and confirm those as accurate, preventing you from relying too much on trial and error to progress. There are ways to use that fact to your advantage (such as when you’re really sure you’ve got two fates nailed down, you can rely more on guesswork for the third), but in general you have to rely on your wits to proceed. There’s a wonderful sense of accomplishment when you get things right, because YOU figured it out. It wasn’t handed to you, and it certainly wasn’t made easy.Continued on the next page...
What our readers think of Return of the Obra Dinn
Posted by Harald B on Oct 24, 2018
a must-play pure investigation game
Lucas Pope strikes again. As with his previous Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game not quite like any other. The thing that jumps at you immediately is the 1-bit 3d engine, giving a very old-school vibe indeed and letting you pick between it...