Note: This article was specifically written to NOT contain any spoilers nor any solved fates. The final paragraph will give hints on what to look for, but will still not give any answers.
Alone on the Obra Dinn, a ship full of corpses, and equipped with your journal and a peculiar pocket watch, you are tasked with solving the fate of each of the ship’s crew members and passengers. You’re given no backstory or prior knowledge of what occurred, meaning the entire story of the game is there for you to piece together by yourself. It’s no surprise that this game, with its incredibly unique game play (which initially sounds very menial and boring) and art design was made by the same man (Lucas Pope) who brought us Papers, Please, another game that shares these two characteristics.
As in all good stories, you start at the very end and have to work your way backwards in time. The game is split up into chapters, which are subsequently split up into acts, with each act being one person’s (or two peoples’) death. You discover each act in reverse order for each chapter, giving the player an extremely jumbled timeline that forces you have to think about it after the fact if you want to know the whole story. To progress, you approach a corpse, or whatever is left of it, and activate the pocket watch you’ve received. Doing so sucks you into the past and allows you to observe the last few moments of the person’s life. The screen goes black and text pops up as people speak, the scene suddenly popping back into view a few seconds after. All the actors are frozen in time except for you, allowing you to walk around freely on the small section of ship the death occurred on. Using whatever information you can gleam from these various death scenes and the few seconds of sound that played just before it, you have to solve the fates of all 60 that were aboard the ship.
Fates are solved in sets of three, meaning each time you put together the right name and cause of death (and killer, if applicable) to the right face, you must do so with two more people before it’s confirmed you got them right. This is the entirety of the game play, meaning Return of the Obra Dinn has a very heavy emphasis on detective work and inference. There is no danger or risk of failure here, unless you choose to leave the Obra Dinn before solving all possible fates (the game will tell you when you’ve nothing left to do on the ship). Doing so will obviously net you a “bad ending” rather than the true ending.
The art style of the game is incredibly unique. No other game – or form of media for that matter (except perhaps pointillism or dithering) – comes to mind when trying to think of similar examples. The game is “black and white”, except what colors “black” and “white” are is determined by which old, outdated computer you choose in the graphics settings. For example, the Zenith ZVM 1240 makes “black” a soft brown and “white” amber, while the default Macintosh setting makes “black” a dark green and “white” off-white. The character and object models, while unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, somehow do a fantastic job portraying who or what you’re looking at. There is also a very subtle ‘points of interest’ system used that denotes anything you should look at with small but noticeable pixels, meaning the developer clearly put a lot of time into making sure everything was in just the right place for us to find. The sound is similarly very effective and intricately tied into the game play. Quiet ambient sounds follow you around the ship until you enter the past, unique scores playing from the moment you open to the pocket watch to when you leave the memory. Some of the deaths are particularly gruesome, however, in both sound and visuals, so expect a small dose of discomfort.
Return of the Obra Dinn was definitely worth the relatively low price point in my opinion. It tells a good story in an amazing fashion, and while it doesn’t really have any replay-ability, it’s still an experience worth having. It is a little niche in terms of its game play, so not everyone is likely to enjoy it. However, for those who are thinking about picking it up, I would recommend trusting the quality of the developer’s work.
As promised, this article will be discussing the various tricks and thought processes one can use to figure out who’s who. What language people are speaking as well as accents are obvious go-to’s, but Return of the Obra Dinn is chock full of the tiniest of details you can use. Clothing, facial structure, and even accessories are things to pay attention to throughout your mission. Where people are (there’s only one job that goes up on the masts, after all) throughout the dying moments and what sound you hear exactly as your vision cuts in are more subtle ways to put names to faces. Sometimes throwing out strategic guesses can net you easy verifications since fates are verified in sets of three. If you solve two fates and know for sure they are right, and only know how one person died but not their name, you can flip through each name one at a time to see which it is. When you finally get to the right name, your answers will be locked in and you’ll have gotten a free name checked off. Guessing is practically necessary at times since a lot of peoples’ names are never said and it’s near impossible to determine someone’s name when all you know is their ethnicity, job, and cause of death. It may be possible to never guess, but to find out definitively who everyone is without ever guessing would take an incredible amount of work. The same tactic can be used to determine who killed another crew member by cycling through the names of crew members when prompted for someone’s killer. Looking around during memories is also key, so make sure to check the different levels of the ship, either by peeking past people or going up or down stairs. Everyone who disappears throughout the different chapters doesn’t leave behind a body, which means you’ll have to look for them in previous acts in that same chapter. One final thing to keep in mind is that from the moment you start the game you need to pay attention to details. Knowing who and where the notebook came from will help later on, so it’s best to always be on your toes.
Editor’s Note: This game was recently nominated for Best Art Direction and Best Independent Game in the 2018 Game Awards. We’re very excited to see how it does!