The best stories in games are those that the player has a part in telling. Usually this role is one of making choices that determine how the story goes. The story in Return of the Obra Dinn (Mac / PC) is of a different kind. Here, the story has long ended, and it’s up to the player to piece it together from scraps of information, building their understanding of what happened, when, and to whom.
Some spoilers for Return of the Obra Dinn below, and if you’re planning on playing it, spoilers are worth avoiding.
Even for a puzzle game, the role that the player takes on in Return of the Obra Dinn might seem boring at first glance. You are an insurance investigator, sent to examine an abandoned sailing vessel, the Obra Dinn of the title, in order to determine what happened and what your employer may have to pay out as a result. In pursuit of this goal, you are given two tools: a notebook that includes the ship’s crew manifest, a plan of the vessel, and a picture of the crew at work, and a skull-marked pocket watch that allows you to view the moment of death for every corpse you uncover.
This provides the straightforward investigatory mechanic of the game: find bodies, view their moments of death, and use the clues provided in these moments to determine who died, how, and at whose hands. There are sixty members of the crew, and although some don’t take a lot of effort to figure out, most will require a lot of detective work to get all three information points. Every time you make three complete correct guesses, the game rewards you by confirming them. You don’t have to confirm every guess to finish the game, but there’s a bonus awaiting you if you persevere.
This is a detective game then, with touches of Myst in its exploration and puzzle solving from environmental clues, but the storytelling that underlies the game is something special. The story itself is of course linear and pre-defined, but the manner in which you experience it is nothing of the kind. In fact, the first moments of the game see you experiencing the last moments of the tragedy of the Obra Dinn, involving betrayal, suicide, and loss. How did the ship come to this point? How did the crew of the Obra Dinn come to be entirely lost? Whose fault was the tragedy that befell the ship? These questions arise as you explore the history of the vessel, and answering them drives you just as much as the desire to fill your notebook does.
You never experience the story in a linear fashion (though you often move through each individual chapter in a linear fashion, the direction is usually backwards), so over the course of the game you’re piecing together a larger truth from fragmented impressions. Viewing the fate of one body will often reveal another corpse, but even once all of the bodies have been found and their moments of death experienced, you will continue to jump back and forth between them as you continue to ferret out all of the clues to each crew member and passenger’s identity. Your notebook allows you to bookmark individuals and view every vignette in which they appear, and you can even track their progress across the ship throughout the history of its last voyage. All of these tools contribute to the tapestry that is the Obra Dinn’s fate.
Created by Lucas Pope, the mind behind 2013’s clever and melancholy Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is an exceptionally unified piece of work, with the gameplay mechanics and story supporting each other and the evocative voice work and music contributing strongly to the atmosphere. Special attention needs to be paid to the graphics: Pope chose to use monochrome, dithered visuals that ape old-style computer games (you can choose which particular computer type is mimicked in the menu options), and this odd mix of an old-style sailing ship and seemingly ancient visual stylings works far better than you’d imagine. Even more so for the fact that the primitive graphics add a hurdle to identifying crew members—a roadblock that ought to be frustrating but instead feels appropriately fair.
The story that you uncover piece by piece is one of a voyage cursed by secrets and damned by a moment of violence and greed. There are moments, some of them early in the game, where the vistas of the death moments will take your breath away, regardless of how primitive the graphics may seem. The fact that you can move around a limited area around the moment of death means that you can capture the reactions of every person present, and all of this information can feed into your investigation. Certain roles on the crew require specific uniforms, and other roles are revealed by actions taken, or people who associate with one another. You will hear a name shouted out in a moment of dialogue from time to time, but more often a collection of clues is needed to zero in on the identity of the person you’re looking at.
Often, the identification of one person will lead to a chain of deductions, easing a seemingly intractable roadblock that you’d run into. Revisiting older puzzles with new information can provide new deductions. There is a slight problem with being able to blindly guess the final elements of a clue, but the fact that three complete solutions are needed in order to gain a confirmation means that this is only really viable towards the end of the game, when the number of options is reduced to a manageable level. As such, taking this resort never feels entirely unfair, and there’s plenty of information available to avoid it, save in a couple of circumstances.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a unique experience in gaming. Atmospheric and engaging, it almost forces you to dive deep in order to resolve its mysteries. It may be piggy-backing on the famous mystery of the Marie Celeste, but the strength of the story that it tells and the way that it involves the player in piecing it together makes it very much its own thing. At the risk of spoilers, it’s worth saying that one should pay attention to all parts of the notebook that you receive. None of it is superfluous. The only mark against it might be a lack of replayability and a short playing time, but every moment you spend investigating this ghost ship will likely engage you fully.
Don’t let the primitive-seeming screenshot put you off. This is a game well worth digging into. You can take your own notes too, if you like, but the game has made the information you need as available as possible to you, though it’s up to you to hunt it out. The satisfaction of the chime that plays when a third solution clicks into place provides a fantastic gaming high, and the mechanics of the game in general keep the frustration that can accompany mystery games at arm’s length. Obra Dinn is an experience well worth pursuing if you have a Mac or PC.