Return of the Obra Dinn is an important game, not just because it’s won its fair share of accolades and awards, but because it’s a masterclass in presenting information. The art style, sound design, writing, and mechanics all work together to make your job as an insurance investigator for the East India Company difficult but crucially not impossible. Even with the help of the ship’s manifest and a magic pocket watch that shows you a deceased person’s (or animal’s…we’ll get to that later) final moments, determining the name and manner of death or disappearance of each of the ship’s 60 occupants is a monumental task that took me nearly 14.5 hours to complete on my first playthrough. But I was enthralled for nearly all of that time, and the few hours of frustration and tedium that I experienced only made my progression through the game that much sweeter. So strap on your boots, and let’s dive in, shall we?
If you haven’t played Obra Dinn yet, I strongly encourage you to stop reading and go play it! It’s fantastic. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll learn something from the experience (Lucas Pope is even fine with you refunding it).
Learning to See
Okay, still with me? The most striking part of Obra Dinn, at first, is its 1-bit art style. Lucas Pope chose to emulate the style of early Macintosh video games, and it shows. He’s written a lot about how he achieved the dithering effect in a forum post and elsewhere so I won’t go into the technical aspects of it. Suffice to say, it’s complicated. But beyond instigating nostalgia for retro games, the art style performs a very important mechanical function as well. It gives the game an almost clinical atmosphere, allowing the investigator/player to go about their business dealing with pure facts. The blood and gore are mostly subdued by the high-contrast aesthetic, as are many facial features and other details. Only the most important bits shine through the filter, the bits you’ll need to focus on in your newfound occupation as a recorder of death. Early on, I found myself constantly zooming in on faces and other details just so I could find my footing amidst the chaos.
But as I got further into the game, I spent less and less time in the first-person mode and more time with my nose deep in the manifest. This is because, as you gather more clues and more and more faces become clear to you, you can start to narrow down identities almost Guess Who?-style. It’s very difficult to brute force your way through the game since the book only confirms your guesses after you get three correct solves, but it is possible to “cheese” some details for individual deaths, a strategy I used fairly often. Sometimes, my word choices would be slightly off or I’d mistake one person for another, and I’d go through a string of options until the satisfying “Well done.” message appeared on the screen. As soon as you lock in three correct guesses, the game instantly recognizes them and typesets them into the book, so you can very quickly select and scroll through several possibilities until the game confirms them as true. The design and navigation of the book itself are a little unwieldy, but the clumsiness reinforces the notion that you are in 1807 and that you need to be very sure about your guesses if you’re to have any hope of succeeding.
Subverting the Past
Several times, I was sure of a victim or a culprit or a means of death, only to be proven completely wrong hours later. I would have several pages filled out but none of them were registering as correct so I would have to once again sift through details and memories until I realized the mistakes I had made. It’s these devils in the details that Lucas Pope wants you to focus on, and you likely won’t notice them at all on your first few viewings of a particular scene or scenes. Seemingly mundane scenes might have massive repercussions for you, the investigator, because of the ancillary information available in them besides the stark death of one individual. Pope masterfully misdirects you into paying attention to certain actions while the stone, cold facts wait for you in the shadows. If you aren’t looking or listening for them, you may very well not discover them, and I suspect many players will walk away from this game before they’ve solved every fate. A few can only be discovered by aiming your pocket watch at a cow skull, a barrel (inside of which is the corpse of the Obra Dinn’s only stowaway), or the curled-up husk of a terrible crab-like beast.
I know I even wanted to quit several times along my journey, but Lucas Pope accounted for this eventuality. Once you’ve viewed every possible death scene on the ship, it starts to rain over the Obra Dinn, and your boatman grows more anxious to leave. You can choose to leave the ship behind right then and there, without ever filling in a guess. If you do so, you are presented with the claims report for the Obra Dinn along with a letter from Miss Jane Bird, one of the few survivors of the tragedy. She informs you that Henry Evans, the ship’s surgeon and your employer, has passed away, but, if you were able to solve a significant number of fates, she also tells you that she, Emily Jackson, Henry, and one other passenger took up residence in Morocco. In this way, Pope rewards the player for giving up early and exploring the end game, because now you are suddenly armed with the knowledge of four more entries in the manifest, which hopefully compels you to rewind your save and get back to your prescribed work.
The real experience of Return of the Obra Dinn lies in the agonizing detective strategies you must employ to be certain of each and every person’s identity. You must observe their clothing. You must recognize accents. You must, in rare cases, memorize who a person is so you can see who they killed from afar. You must be willing to scrutinize every detail of a person, from their tattoos to what shoes they wear to their accouterments (such as a messenger bag or a pipe…or a monkey). You must scan the map and the crew sketches until your vision blurs in order to recognize the relationships between the ship’s officers, mates, stewards, crew, passengers, and their lodgings. Only after you’ve mastered these details and accounted for every contingency will you become an Obra Dinn expert and the end game will finally open to you.
While its ending is little more than icing on a very satisfying cake, it does serve to fill in the gaps in the story that is mostly told from end to start, completely backward, just like the sequences of death scenes you’ve stepped through. Similar to the story of The Monkey’s Paw, the crew were punished for trifling with the Lovecraftian secrets of the deep and summarily executed one by one. When you’ve finished identifying the last death, you’ll be able to flip through the completed book page by page, knowing that each and every detail was determined solely by you through much time and determination, and that is an achievement unique to this game, worth celebrating for years to come.