Like most good indie efforts, Return of the Obra Dinn thrives in tight limitations, doing a lot with a little; and like the best of those games, it takes advantage of a rather original premise, creating – in the process – an investigative quest that propels the format to new heights
The Obra Dinn was a trading ship that, in 1802, departed from London on what was meant to be just another run-of-the-mill trip around the Cape of Good Hope and with the East Indies as its final destination. Carrying a whole lot of cargo and even some passengers, the vessel sadly failed to be spotted turning the corner at the tip of Africa and was, in 1803, declared lost at sea. Ominously, five years later, the ship reappeared out of the blue with a rather haunting detail: the sixty people that had been on board were nowhere to be found. Given the Obra Dinn was insured by the East India Company, the enterprise tasked its Chief Inspector with a rather tricky quest: board the now abandoned Obra Dinn and figure out what exactly happened inside it; all with the rather bureaucratic goal of either paying claims to or even fining the estates of the disappeared according to the nature of the discoveries.
On a superficial look, then, Return of the Obra Dinn sets itself up as a bit of a Sherlock Holmes story. After all, its mystery, which lacks witnesses and is devoid of evident clues, feels like one of those hopeless investigations that had people knocking on 221B Baker Street looking for a detective that could see the unseen and find reasoning in apparently barren terrain. However, the twist is that the game abandons the confines of reality to gift the protagonist with a supernatural pocket watch called Memento Mortem that allows them to rewatch the final living moments of the corpses that are located; and it is through that power that Return of the Obra Dinn invites players to show their deductive skills.
Designed by Lucas Pope, who deservingly rose to stardom on the heels of Papers Please, the game has the fingertips of the indie scene all over it. Its setting is simple and limited, since almost the entirety of the journey happens within the confines of a standard-sized vessel of the period. Its technical aspects have to find shortcuts around a tight budget, giving birth to a unique black-and-white tridimensional art style and the building of a clever gameplay mechanic to avoid the creation of animated cutscenes. Finally, on a characteristic that is more impactful and important than all of that, Return of the Obra Dinn is an alluring, original, and gripping gameplay experience based on a completely unlikely premise; one that could not have come out of a big studio and that, aligned with Pope’s previous solo work, showcases his knack for transforming mundane jobs into absolutely delightful games.
To many, even to those who have a strong liking for deductions and investigations, the ultimate goal of Return of the Obra Dinn will seem daunting, because aside from identifying every single one of the sixty individuals who were aboard, the Chief Inspector will also have to determine their individual fates. The former task is done by giving each person a name and specifying what their role inside the ship was. Meanwhile, the latter entails describing the manner in which they died or perhaps even saying they are actually alive somewhere. And indeed getting all of those pieces to neatly click in place is a very big brainteaser; Return of the Obra Dinn, though, is tightly designed not only in a way that facilitates those tasks (without ever making them too easy), but also with the clear idea of welcoming all kinds of gamers who want to give its mystery a try.
Firstly, the protagonist will hop aboard the ship with a list of all sixty passengers, containing their names and what they did aboard the vessel: seaman, topman, captain, mate, carpenter, surgeon, and other roles. Secondly, painted by an artist who is among the missing souls, players will also receive a pair of sketches – which are pretty much group photos – created at two moments during the trip when nearly everyone was gathered. Lastly, and ranking as the most useful item, there is a notebook – sent to the East India Company alongside the pocket watch – which records all collected information, features a map of the ship, has a glossary of nautical terms, and is also the place where the answers of who is who and what fates befell them must be input.
To put it simply, the gameplay of Return of the Obra Dinn centers around finding a corpse on the ship and using the stop watch to relive the moment of their death; once that is done, the information regarding that scene will be added to the book, which is divided into chapters and pages that will retell the events that took place on the ship in chronological order. Furthermore, the page of the book destined for each death scene will also contain a list of those who were present, with their faces being highlighted on the sketches; a transcript of the dialog that was depicted in the scene, with the lines spoken by the deceased being distinctively marked; a map that indicates the position of the corpse on the ship, in case players want to rewatch the occurrence; and, of course, the ultimate question: a picture of those who died in the event with a prompt asking of who they are as well as who or what killed them, which can all be selected from fixed lists.
When described in such a way, the task might even sound easy, but Return of the Obra Dinn is quite clever in building a maze of deductions for players to navigate through before they reach a conclusion. For starters, names are rarely said, which makes it pretty hard to confidently state who is who. As such, the game forces players to rely on acute observation to identify people. Details like who they hang out with, what they are shown doing during the scenes they appear in, what types of clothes they wear, and even ethnicity and accent can be pivotal in determining if the fellow who was shown dying was a passenger, a steward, or one of the Chinese topmen.
In order to help with this matter, the game uses two smart solutions. First, there is a number which tells players how hard the naming of that specific person is, with the tutorial even suggesting that tougher identifications be left to the end so that an elimination process is possible. Second, the photos of the victims of each scene will be slightly blurred if the protagonist still does not have enough information to determine who they are; meaning that scenes which are essential for the deduction process have not been found yet. Consequently, players will clearly know when they should start grinding their neurons to assign a name to each poor soul, which avoids frustration altogether and – as a fantastic bonus – gives gamers agency over the quest’s pacing, since they can determine when to investigate and when to open the book to focus on making deductions.
When it comes to everyone’s fates, Return of the Obra Dinn also manages to be tricky without feeling unfair. Sure, it is generally pretty clear when someone was stabbed, shot, or worse, and in those cases the difficulty usually will come in naming the one who did the deed. Yet, there are plenty of corpses that are not on the ship; therefore, players will not be able to watch the end of their journey play out specifically. These folks will have their pictures shown at the end of the chapters in which they disappear from the story and the game will, naturally, challenge players to define their individual fates: a conclusion that can obviously be reached with a deal of good-old thinking, investigating, and rewatching the scenes from that part of the voyage.
Additionally, in more than a handful of occasions, the matter of fate becomes obscure thanks to the way the deaths themselves play out. In a classic example of budget-constraints working in synergy with gameplay twists, the pocket watch does not allow the Chief Inspector to witness the final moments of one’s life as a movie; consequently, for Lucas Pope, there was no need to spend a whole lot of money on costly 3-D animation. Instead, players will hear the ambient sounds and the dialog, which is fully and excellently voice acted, that preceded the person’s death and then be transported to the very moment – frozen in time like a picture – when life was sniffed out.
It is a strategy that works in multiple ways. Without feeling unfair, it manages to cloud in some mystery the cause of death; for instance, it can make determining who exactly fired a shot a bit ambiguous, yet still perfectly identifiable with keen observation. In addition, it makes for some pretty dramatic scenes, as players get to see an artistic still frame of a character’s sad demise, which might include glorious explosions, particle effects, and a myriad of very real expressions. At last, there is how this format allows players to walk through the scene, which is not done for solely artistic reasons.
When the frozen frame of the moment of death is displayed, the game will lock players into the general vicinity of the ship in which the act happened, with a door leading back to the real-time version of the vessel. By being able to freely walk around the dramatic moment, the protagonist gets to analyze the scene from multiple angles as well as take a good look at other characters that were near the event. Needless to say, both measures are utterly necessary to accurately determine cause of death and also investigate further into the identity of some folks. As a helpful feature, zooming in on any character that is present and then pressing the X button will not just show who they are in the available sketches, but also automatically open a prompt that allows players to assign a name to the individual they are targeting. It is a small detail, but it is a feature that drives home the point of how expertly designed Return of the Obra Dinn is, as Lucas Pope made sure to give gamers all the tools to make the investigation as smooth as possible.
This high level of care can be seen in other areas of the package too. Although accurately determining the sixty fates is necessary to get to the best ending, the quest can be finished at pretty much any point, which is welcoming to all sorts of players. Moreover, even though all of the more than one hundred answers can be reasonably deduced with observation, Return of the Obra Dinn features a clever verification system that diminishes the power of guessing without totally eliminating it. That is achieved because rather than checking fates one by one, which would allow people to try different identifications and causes of death until they got them right, the game validates answers in threes; consequently, it is only possible to know inputs are accurate when a trio of fates is correct, which still leaves the door open for some guessing in situations where players are sure they have two fates right but are a bit unsure regarding, for example, the identify of a third someone they saw being crushed to death.
The very presentation of Return of the Obra Dinn also works as proof of its elevated degree of polish. Its bold art style, which was certainly born out of the constraints of a tight budget, gives the game a distinctive vintage look that fits its theme; and its reliance on black shapes and white lines, which could easily have turned out to be tiring for the eyes, is handled in a way that transforms it into a delight, making it hard for one to wish the game sported any other visual format. Meanwhile, its sound seamlessly switches between relying on ambient noise during the investigation segments and exploding into brass-heavy catchy nautical tunes, which were also composed by Pope, when the dramatic death frames are revealed.
All in all, Return of the Obra Dinn does show a few quirks that could have been improved. The magical realism of a few plot points might come off as exaggerated to some. Exploring the ship could have been more natural, because doors to lower decks of the ship seem to arbitrarily open when certain corpses are found; in that sense, perhaps it would have been better to let the Chief Inspector roam the whole vessel from the start or allow players to interact with the environment – perhaps by finding keys or pulling levers – to advance. The fact a few dead bodies can only be accessed from within specific scenes makes rewatching their demise unnecessarily cumbersome. Finally, in what is a somewhat odd choice, players can only begin to interact with a death scene once the music that plays along with their presentation stops, which usually leads to a few seconds of standing around waiting for the tune to end; although that feature is obviously a result of Pope wanting to augment and take advantage of the dramatic nature of those scenes, that constraint is a bit silly and the waiting gets slightly dull pretty fast.
Even if they are problems, it goes without saying that those items are much closer to nitpicks than actual issues, and the only truly bad facet of Return of the Obra Dinn is one that naturally affects all efforts that gravitate around script or investigation: the fact that after the first playthrough, which should last around ten hours, the package greatly loses value. The inevitable feeling of being sad they cannot play the game for the first time again that most players will get when wrapping up their journey, though, is the greatest testament to the quality of what Lucas Pope pulls off here.
Return of the Obra Dinn manages to be simultaneously daunting and enticing from the get go thanks to how it drops players aboard an abandoned ship with nothing but a magical stop watch, a book containing some helpful information, and the task of figuring out the individual fates of every one of the vessel’s sixty missing passengers. From there, the title uses a smartly designed combination of storytelling, gameplay features, and visual clues to let gamers – at their own chosen pace – slowly unravel the mystery at hand. Like most good indie efforts, Return of the Obra Dinn uses its tight limitations in its favor, doing a lot with the little it has available. And like the very best of those games, it takes full advantage of a completely original premise that would have no place outside the independent scene, creating – in the process – an investigative quest that propels the format to new heights.