Return of the Obra Dinn is probably already familiar to you if you follow indie narrative games at all: winner of both the Grand Prize and Excellence in Narrative at the most recent IGF, the creation of Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope. I’m only getting to it now because I’m seriously behind.
The game puts you in the role an an insurance inspector, trying to work out what happened to everyone who used to be aboard a ghost ship. Thanks to a supernatural pocket watch, you’re able to revisit the time-frozen moment of death for every body you find, allowing you to explore one disturbing tableau after another to figure out who died, in what sequence, and why.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a very good game, one that achieves spectacle, surprise, and even some comedy within its confines. It’s worth playing with as little spoiler information as possible, so I’ve put less than usual above the fold. More design thoughts follow below, but they assume you’ve either played the game or read enough of a synopsis to be able to follow references.
Return of the Obra Dinn is one of those games that commands respect even when it’s making choices I wouldn’t have made. There are a bunch of nitpicks and style disagreements I could list: finding the final identities becomes laborious and fiddly; the system sometimes demands precision about modes of death when it was hard for me to guess what was intended from the scene; I wanted the pacing to pick up at a couple of points.
Finally, in terms of plot revelation, the mid-game offers you a sequence of de-escalating monsters — showing you the vast Kraken first and the mermaids last. The crab-riders sequence is the slackest portion here, narratively. The Kraken has the merit of terror and surprise, and I was appropriately gobsmacked when I first came up on deck and saw the tentacles sticking out of the water. And the mermaid sequence, meanwhile, is much more interpersonally intense, with a complicated set of allegiances and motives to understand, and the implication of some underlying fantasy lore.
But the crab-riders section is the place where I most pulled away from the game world, feeling restive about how long the story was taking, and losing confidence in its internal logic. When viewed in forward chronological order, the story does benefit from the escalation — the mermaids come in, then something else moderately bad happens, then the Kraken arrives — but the crab bloodbath isn’t doing as much work as the other sections, narratively speaking.
Contrast, here, the Murder section. There is much less nasty spectacle than when the crab-beasts are roaming the ship, but there’s still a lot to see. The execution by firing squad is perhaps my favorite moment in the game. We’ve spent so long at this point poring over the picture of the execution that it is breathtaking to have the scene come to life; to find the artist and see him from the outside for the first time; to discover that reality is both more and less legible than the artwork that showed it. And then the rest of the section is meaty, full of information about who has done what, and what kinds of people they are.
None of those reflections significantly diminished how much I respect this game, though. Return of the Obra Dinn commits to a few systemic design choices and then adheres to them with true discipline.
One: core mechanic. You will wander around the ship; you will find physical remains, you will use your pocket-watch to view the scene in which that being died, and you will then record the identity of the deceased, the method of death, and the identity of the killer.
That’s it. Anything that does not belong to this mechanic has been abstracted away so naturally that you might not really notice its removal. There are locked parts of the ship that become available over time, but this is metered by how many discoveries you’ve already made. Pope doesn’t clutter up the game with unnecessary locks and keys, for instance, as a more literal-minded designer might have done.
Two: the ship is both setting and main character. In the course of unraveling the mystery, you will develop a highly robust mental model of the Obra Dinn: its physical dimensions, its strengths and vulnerabilities, its resources, the damage it took over time; the people who lived aboard it, how they related to each other, how they spent their time, what their duties were. Some reviewers have complained (justly) that you don’t get to know individual characters very well; it’s possible to guess at the motives of a few of them, but the reasoning often appears in quite broad strokes.
The ship’s complement as a totality, however, we can understand fairly well. At the beginning, our crew is curious, varied, diverse. The early deaths are due to accident and illness, things that might happen to anyone at sea. But then factions begin to act on less noble motives — greed, superstition, cowardice, vengeance, an insatiable desire for pretty shells. The ship turns on or destroys the people who are most other, in the process losing access to their knowledge and insight. The captain makes a series of bad choices about whom to trust and what to do.
It is a collective rather than an individual tragedy, the narrative of a compromised and damaged group.