I saw it coming, I’d had moments like this spoiled for me already. And yet, when the screen resolved into its freeze-frame, the scene it depicted still took my breath away. A tall ship at sea, seized by the tentacles of a kraken—one of which wielded a mast like a stick, striking dead the woman whose demise I was investigating.
This moment is a fulcrum for Return of the Obra Dinn, a critical point on which the rest of the story is levered, elevating it into the heights of fantasy. It needed to be perfect, and it was. The combination of music, theme, and image was an expertly mixed cocktail.
This latest venture by Lucas Pope, creator of Papers Please, is a solid contender for many GOTY lists. The game, which was cheekily marketed by Pope as an "insurance adventure with minimal color," is a mystery that makes a grand and intricate game out of deduction, whose minimal inputs still manage to cohere into syphonic play.
You’re an insurance investigator for the East India Company sent to investigate the ship, presumed lost, which has drifted near an African harbor. With a twist. You are, to borrow the felicitous phrase of author Amanda Downum, a forensic necromancer. Using an enchanted watch you’ve been given for the unique mission, you can revisit the exact moment someone—or something—died, the (often grisly) moment suspended in time, allowing you to carefully examine every detail of the scene. For all sixty of the missing passengers and crew, presumed dead you have to identify who each person is, how they died, and, often as not, who or what led to their untimely demise.
The core challenge of the game comes from figuring that all out, picking apart the zoetrope of frozen scenes to get the clues you need. They’re exquisitely crafted affairs, to boot. Fully three dimensional, and yet rendered in a throwback low-fi theme. There’s much that can grate about nostalgia aesthetics, but, like Firewatch’s 1980s setting, Obra Dinn’s graphics play an important mechanical role. They draw into sharp relief those all important clues that might otherwise be lost in a morass of bloom and particle effects. It has the effect of focusing the game on what’s important, with details like facial features, wedding rings, bed assignments, bullet trajectories, and shoe design coming to the fore with perfect clarity.
For all that, nothing of the emotional power in any of these scenes is lost. The calamity I used to open this piece is nothing short of a work of digital art, a woodcut by way of an Apple IIe.
The moment of death is the game’s lens, a fascinating choice that also spared Pope the trouble of animating his beautiful scenes. What that lens captures, ironically, is life. The care put into detailing each scene gives us a strong sense of what life on this early 19th-century ship would have been like, and makes characters with few lines of dialogue come to life. Unlike other games of this sort, there’s very little written material to encounter. You won’t read tearstained letters or diary entries here. More’s the pity, in one sense. But in a much larger sense this minimalism is this game’s strength, and it benefits from its laser-targeted focus. Everything has to come from these moments of death: every clue, every meaningful thematic moment, it’s all there in that final instant for these doomed sailors.
But that makes the characterizations all the more interesting. What they lack in depth, they make up for with passion and a strong sense of humanity. Whatever else may be said, these were people with dignity. Yes, even the ship’s artist letting a long fart rip (not on the poop deck, sadly enough). The characters of these people come through, however, in flashes you see them; at the hour of their death, or in the background of someone else’s. They come off as people.
Much as the joy of a Fullbright game lies in getting to know the principals, so too is that the joy here. Unlike in a Fullbright game, nearly all of them are comprehensively fucked. But that sense is spread out over flashes of life for sixty people, rather than an in-depth knowledge of half-a-dozen. The effect is interesting. You still feel a sense of obligation to them, a sense of knowing them.
My first playthrough saw me discover the true fates of only about a quarter of the crew, most of them officers and the elite passengers. With devastating aptness, it’s harder to pin down the majority of the crew—the nameless midshipmen, topmen, and seamen who make the ship go. Except they all have names. You have the manifest. You just need the will to dig in and find out who all these people were and honor them with a record of their passing.
There were so many ways this could have gone wrong, but Pope does a commendable job of giving his 1807 a realistic flavor without giving into the romanticism or whitewashing found in other period pieces. Among so many other exquisite details, the game’s Formosan royalty were voiced and consulted upon by Taiwanese people who spoke that dialect of Chinese.
There are moments of frustration, however small. Minimalism, even at its most disciplined, can be leaky. Learning the game’s controls and logic was due as much to trial and error as its instructions, and there is a frustrating opacity to things like assigning a cause of death (mercifully, the game allows for multiple “correct” causes of death, but this isn’t made terribly clear anywhere). In addition, when so much depends on the moment-of-death scenes, it can be frustrating to have to run all over the ship, from corpse to corpse, to revisit them. There’s a fine line between challenging the player and simply imposing tedium, and after a fashion this jog staggers over to the wrong side of that line.
But these are the smallest possible nitpicks of a game that is aggressive in its perfection.
It’s worth concluding by reflecting on what the actual gameplay is here. You wander from place to place, observing scenes, and stating a couple of narrow parameters for an important event in each scene. It’s the deduction demanded by the latter that constitutes the core challenge to what is, ultimately, a very intricate and fantastical puzzle. This is the epitome of “gameplay taking place in the players’ mind,” a trait often imputed to so-called walking simulators that lack surface-level mechanics.
The uncharitable might say that Obra Dinn is merely an elaborate hidden object game; yet even if that were so, it’s useful to remind ourselves that reasoning can be a core game mechanic. Obra Dinn succeeds because it plays that to the hilt of its sabre, giving players a peerless sense of ownership over discoveries that add up to a damning tragedy.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.