The Captain did it
The kraken, the crabs, and the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn
Developed by Lucas Pope
Published by 3909
Available on PC and Mac
Before we start, here are some disclaimers: this game contains freeze-frame scenes of intense violence and gore. The sound design of the game can also be really disturbing, but that will be addressed in more detail later in this review. Additionally, this game is intellectually challenging and will do no hand-holding for the player. If you wanted to play a chill game, Return of the Obra Dinn is not for you. Now, let’s dive into death.
Return of the Obra Dinn features a woman who works as an insurance adjuster for the East India Company. Given an empty journal and a magical pocket watch, the insurance adjuster is sent to the empty husk of a ship that is the Obra Dinn. Shortly after arriving on the ship, the protagonist finds a skeleton and thus reveals the power of said magical pocket watch: the ability to see into a frozen snapshot of how the deceased died and to hear relevant dialogue prior to this scene. Once this power has been unlocked, the game expects you, the humble player, to then discover the secrets of the Obra Dinn with no other prompting other than the handful of tutorial tips granted to you in the beginning.
Let’s start with gameplay mechanics. The entire game is seen from the first-person perspective of the insurance adjuster. Moving around the ship is easy, if not a bit tedious when you are forced to return to certain memories over and over again in order to unlock more pieces of the puzzle. Then there is the journal, granted to you by Henry Evans, who asks you to return the journal to Morocco upon full completion of its contents.
Upon reflection of this game, we were quite amazed at the usage versatility of the journal. In most games where an always-accessible handbook is granted to the player for reference, it is either rarely used or only parts of it are used while the rest of the book is superfluous. In the case of Return of the Obra Dinn, however, it is quite refreshing to see that every single section of the journal is handy to the player. Yes, even the glossary helped a lot at some points during our playthrough.
Now for the narrative. You pick up bits and pieces of what happened solely by the death scenes of everyone originally onboard the Obra Dinn. The pacing of the game helps to gradually reveal the story, but also to shock players before letting them get used to the situation at hand. There were several times when we were outright surprised, horrified, or a combination of both to see the scene presented before us, but due to the freeze-frame nature of the memories, we were allowed to explore the scene and acclimate to the circumstances. The memories also subtly reveal the lore, personalities, and motivations of all involved in the alleged tragedy of the Obra Dinn.
The player can be as involved in the story as they wish. In order to unlock the latter half of the fates we were missing, we had to sit down and take notes on every memory in chronological order. The beauty of this was that with so many subtle hints and connecting pieces, the entire story could be revealed in full with only one pass through the memories. But this ordeal took us three hours.
Another thing we came to appreciate is the ambiguity that dialogue introduces into each memory. Prior to every freeze-frame of death, the player listens to dialogue or noises that occur immediately before the person of interest dies. Because of this juxtaposition, it’s sometimes not entirely clear who is being referred to as O’Hagan or whether or not that dying person is actually that one dude’s son; your assumptions early on can either be totally correct and save you time, or they can be totally wrong and cost you time reworking all the labels you had previously assigned.
The sound design in this game is as carefully constructed as the narrative and mechanics. The intricacy of the sound design makes you appreciate yet another aspect into which Lucas Pope put a lot of time and effort, but also makes you question how he could have sat through designing the entire soundtrack. There are definitely sound bytes where the noises are so graphic, you can’t help but cringe upon imagining what the sounds suggest, whether it be someone being ripped apart or someone being crushed to death. However, the the devils are in the details, and even the sounds (and corresponding dialogue cards) can reveal important pieces of information, from how a person dies to what nationality someone in the current memory belongs to.
No discussion of sound design could go without a word about the impressive soundtrack. Each track was appropriately dramatic to the situation, matching the mood at every turn. Furthermore, each chapter had its own musical feel; every track therein being both related to its peers and subtly distinct to carry the weight of the scene in the larger context. Without missing a beat, the music helps build suspense where time is stopped and fear where nothing can harm you, quite the feat for a one-man orchestra.
A no less impressive, and perhaps even more pervasive, aspect of the game’s distinctive and fantastic aesthetic is the one-bit pointallist visuals. While the game is written in Unity, Lucas Pope wanted to recreate the one-bit, black and white graphics of the old Mac games of his youth — Dark Castle, Shadowgate, and the like — in a modern 3D game, and he delivered. Creating his own dimpling algorithms and endlessly rewriting Unity libraries, he creates a complex of visuals that deepen the mystery without getting too much in the way, while also being believable. The only time when the the low(-ish) pixel count gets in the way is when identifying faces, a problem that is fixed by a mechanic which easily allows you to lookup a person from a memory in the journal.
If you are up to the challenge, we highly recommend you play the mystery masterpiece that is Return of the Obra Dinn. For reference, it took us approximately 10 hours to complete the game in full, but we enjoyed every second of those 10 hours, even if we were frustrated to no end at some points. The entire experience of accurately documenting the events of the Obra Dinn can be immensely satisfying for those willing to put in the work. And if you still somehow are not convinced of whether or not you should play this game, we wish we could erase our memories of the story’s secrets so that we could play through it again.