As video game development gets more complex, more and more people get involved in the creative process. This complexity mixed with bloated budgets has resulted in an industry where truly daring ideas never get off the ground. So called ‘medium-defining’ works like The Last of Us Part II are only pushing the narrative envelope. When was the last time a major video game actually felt like a truly revolutionary experience? Ever since the era of the PlayStation 2 saw the last few genres finally figure out 3D gameplay, the industry has focused more on refining trusted formulas than attempting anything new. And, ultimately, what new ground is there left to tread? It’s hard to actually imagine anything new, or else it likely would have already happened. It takes a true creative genius to figure out where to go next.
Return of the Obra Dinn is the rare game that truly feels like its own entity. It makes sense that such a work is essentially a lone man’s passion project. After Papers, Please became a surprise hit, Lucas Pope spent five years working on this project. And it’s not that Return of the Obra Dinn completely defies categorization. As a narrative genre, this is purely a mystery. In regards to gameplay, this is easily comparable to something like Myst. But those new elements it mixes in transcends to what feels like the development of a new subgenre, though whether anyone will dare to follow in this game’s ambitious footsteps is yet to be seen.
Due to its relative obscurity, Return of the Obra Dinn is the rare game in this project that actually needs a proper introduction. The Obra Dinn is a trade ship that went missing in 1803 which suddenly drifted back to shore in 1807. Naturally, all the crew members have disappeared. You play as an insurance inspector armed with a magical pocket watch which can teleport you to the very moment of someone’s death when you find their body. Thus, the gameplay involves searching the ship for bodies and trying to make sense of what you find.
The goal is rather straightforward. You are given a list of the sixty people who were aboard the ship. Your job is to figure out what happened to whom. As you witness each death, the game asks you to fill out who they were, how they died, and who killed them if they were murdered. The trick to this game which sets it apart from other murder mysteries is that you literally see the second of their death; identifying the method tends to be the easy part. The challenge here is identifying these people based purely on their name, position aboard the ship, and nationality. You are additionally armed with a few pictures to keep track of familiar faces as you tour these brutal scenes; this game is a complex web where you will have to add up pieces from these many flashbacks to figure out who everyone might be.
The game is presented in a phenomenal 1-bit-inspired art style. The lack of too much detail makes it easy to identify what the game expects you to look at (while still having enough thrown in to mislead, as a good mystery should). It’s also just impressive to see this style in a three-dimension game. This is a throwback to an era I never experienced, but even without that nostalgia, this game is simply gorgeous.
The set-up of the flashbacks is the real meat of the game. Before you witness the death, you are given a short snippet of the sounds leading up to the moment. People will cry out to one another, sometimes placing a specific name within a scene. Then, you enter the diorama, where you are immediately faced with the generally awful death frozen in time. You are then given the freedom to explore this frozen fragment to suss out other information – you need as much information as you can to match names to faces. The game does nothing to hold your hand along the way, leaving it to the player to figure out what is actually important. I’m not exaggerating when I say the only hint to a character’s identity might be their shoes.
This, admittedly, can be frustrating. If this game only involved solving these connections, there might not be enough of a hook to solve the more esoteric cases. After all, why do you, the player, care about these people? Well, like many other great mysteries, there’s a bigger picture which is not immediately evident. Your attention will likely be pulled away from the case at hand as you contemplate the events which transpired aboard the Obra Dinn. This particular case blew my mind, though it’s not a twist ending or anything similar – this revelation happens immediately after what essentially serves as the tutorial and pervades throughout the experience, but I still don’t want to casually ruin that reveal.
As I still want to discuss that moment, be warned that the next paragraph will contain spoilers.
The actual narrative of the ship is told largely in reverse order. The first few bodies are scattered around the captain’s quarters, and it’s clear the ship’s journey ended in a failed mutiny – but what led to this turn is not immediately clear. Then, you find a woman’s body lying in a bed and jump back to her memory, where she’s being hit over the head by the mast as the ship is being attacked by what appears to be a kraken. Immediately, the game jumps from a rather mundane investigation to an almost surreal horror story. While the gameplay is built around the mystery of identifying the people aboard the ship, the actual mystery at the heart of the experience is trying to figure out why these increasingly strange events transpired. Unfortunately, your view of this story is limited to a few moments frozen in time – pieces are missing, but there’s hope that figuring out who these people are might lead to further revelations.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a perfect example of a great video game narrative that simply could not be told in another medium – one might be able to pick up the pieces and tell the same plot, but the experience would be entirely different. This is a story which needs to be played to have its full effect. Mystery is perhaps the best narrative genre for the video game medium. Where other great mystery games like the Ace Attorney and Danganronpa series rely on loads and loads of information expressed through dialogue, Return of the Obra Dinn excels by relying purely on the player’s perception and deduction.
This game will absolutely push your logical analysis to the breaking point – you will likely need to bust out a pen and paper to make sense of everything and keep your thoughts straight. But like any other great mystery, as frustrating as certain moments can get, there’s nothing quite as rewarding as finally putting the pieces together. Return of the Obra Dinn captures that sensation a few dozens of times over. You will be overwhelmed when you see that list of names, but there will come a point where you start pulling a thread and everything starts falling into place. This is one of those great games you will walk away from not with a sense of it having been beaten but conquered.