Thoughts: Return Of The Obra Dinn


Oh god, my eyes.

Let’s get the most obvious thing out of the way first: Return Of The Obra Dinn is a 3D game where you’re an insurance investigator walking around a long-vanished ghost ship in 1807 looking at a variety of grisly still-life scenes via your time-travelling watch that allows you to peer into the past. By picking up details from these scenes and their accompanying dialogue, and cross-referencing them with the crew manifest and a set of drawings that conveniently happens to include everyone who was on board the Obra Dinn at the time of its final, fateful voyage, you’re supposed to figure out who each person is and how they died, just so that you can put together an accurate insurance claim. It’s a sort of details-oriented detective game, which is what I’d expect from Lucas Pope, the developer of Papers Please — except it is also rendered in the same style of one-bit monochrome hand-drawn graphics that was once popular with ancient Macintosh adventure games, which is an entirely aesthetic choice that influences the game in two pretty huge ways:

  • It obfuscates much of the detail from the game as you’re peering through this haze of lines and pixels to try and figure out what’s going on. This is a curious thing to be doing  for a game whose bedrock is supposed to be picking up on fine detail.
  • Looking at it for protracted periods is absolute hell on the eyes. The old Macintosh games used the one-bit art style for detailed (ha) static 2D scenes; it’s not something that has ever been applied to a 3D game before, and after playing Obra Dinn I understand why. I have a dual-monitor setup, and half an hour spent playing Obra Dinn on one monitor made everything start to turn orange on the other monitor — not that it was actually turning orange, it was just that looking at Obra Dinn for a while produces this effect when you turn away to look at non-Obra Dinn things. This sudden visual impairment is the sort of thing that always makes me afraid I’m in the process of suffering some kind of catastrophic cerebral event that’s fucking with my visual cortex, when in fact I’m just playing Return Of The Obra Dinn. I had to take very frequent breaks while playing it because I didn’t like what it was doing to my vision.


Disappointingly I don’t think this retro rendering style actually helps the gameplay in any way, except that it also obfuscates the relatively primitive character models used for the Obra Dinn’s crew and passengers. In fact, having done a little background reading on the game now, I’ve just found out that Lucas Pope came up with this rendering engine in Unity first and then started looking for a game he could make with it, which proves that Obra Dinn looks the way it does for no other reason than that the developer really really likes it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that (it’s his damn game after all), but I start to object when a design choice like this that has been made for purely aesthetic reasons just ends up getting in the way of the player at every turn. It’s a poor development process that prioritises the developer’s needs and wants over those of the people who will actually be playing the damn thing, after all.

Assuming that you can bear looking at it for more than five minutes at a time, though, what’s Return Of The Obra Dinn actually like to play? Well, at its heart it’s a very simple game. You’re rowed over to the Obra Dinn by the obligatory ancient ferryman and handed your magic watch, along with a log book that has some basic documentation about the Obra Dinn (crew manifest, journey route, drawings of the crew and passengers) in which your character automatically takes notes about the things he sees. You see your first corpse immediately after clambering onto the deck of the ship, so you whip out the magic watch; this causes the screen to go dark as you listen to a snippet of dialogue from the moments before this corpse became a corpse, and then everything lights back up as you view the actual moment of death, frozen in time.


Obra Dinn’s death scenes are very good. They’re centred around the person who has died and you can’t wander too far away from them, but the space you can access is crammed full of actors who look like they’ve genuinely been caught mid-action, like it’s a proper snapshot of something that’s really happening right now. You’re free to walk around and look at it from different angles, or to find additional details lurking on the edge of the scene; holding the right mouse button over a character will pop up their portrait in the background, and hitting Tab while you’re pointing at them will open their part of the book so that you can fill in their identity (if you’ve managed to figure that out). There’s some ominous-sounding music playing in the background while you’re looking at things, and when it’s over the book will open automatically to present you with a summary of what you’ve seen — the dialogue, where on the ship it occurred, and who was involved, as well as a box with the portrait of the unfortunate soul who died in that particular scene. Clicking on the box allows you to select their identity from the crew manifest, as well as their manner of death and (if applicable) who was responsible for it.

Accurately filling in these death boxes — or determining a character’s fate, as the game refers to it — is what Obra Dinn is all about. In most cases (but nowhere near all, which is a big niggle I’ll be coming to later) how the person died is pretty obvious because it’s the centrepiece of the big still-life death scene that you just spent a minute or more poring over. Figuring out who they are and who killed them is far trickier, because there are (or were) sixty crew and passengers aboard the Obra Dinn. Their names, roles and nationalities are all recorded in the crew manifest, but when the game begins you don’t have much to connect those names to those time-frozen crew members who are in the process of expiring in a variety of gruesome ways. Your biggest clues come in the dialogue snippets prior to each of the still-life vignettes. One of the people present will sometimes be mentioned by name or by rank, or is addressed as “sir”, which gives you a hint as to who is speaking to whom. Somebody will speak with a heavy accent, or in a foreign language, that lets you narrow the list of possible candidates down to three or four based on their nationality. As far as the still-life visions themselves go, aside from the actual cause of death you can pick up some not-so-subtle clues from people’s clothing; the Obra Dinn’s officers and midshipmen are dressed in distinctly different ways to the rest of the crew, while somebody wearing a bloody great apron is likely to be a surgeon, or a butcher. Once you’ve gathered enough information you can start to identify crew members with a degree of certainty, and that will reduce your candidate pools for other crew members that you’ve narrowed down but haven’t yet solved completely.


Now, regardless of the information the game gives you via the various clues in your book and in the watch visions, identifying all sixty crew members in one go with nothing to indicate whether you were on the right track or not would be practically impossible, and this is why Obra Dinn helps you along by confirming correct fates in groups of three. At first when you write their fate into the log book it will be handwritten, indicating a degree of uncertainty, but whenever you have three of these handwritten fates that are fully correct (including the name of the victim, the name of the killer and the cause of death) they’ll be converted into properly typeset entries in the log book that can no longer be changed. In the process it also indirectly tells you about things that you’ve gotten wrong — after all, if you filled in the fates of five crew members and only three of them were confirmed correct, then it means the other two are wrong somehow and you have to go back and look at them again. This strikes a nice balance between keeping the player on roughly the correct path in their deductions while protecting somewhat against brute-forcing fates via trial-and-error.

This detective work is the actual substance lurking behind those blitted visuals, and when it’s working properly Obra Dinn is a very good game indeed. The story of the Obra Dinn’s fateful final voyage is split into ten chapters in the log book, each of which has a corpse on the ship that functions as your entry point into a series of visions of the past that describe what happened at each stage of the journey. In most of these visions you’ll find other corpses that then show up on the deck of the Obra Dinn as ghostly outlines, and you can use the watch on them just as you would a normal corpse. Because the watch rewinds time to the moment of each corpse’s death, you end up viewing most of the events of each chapter in reverse chronological order as you step back further and further through time with each corpse. This is a method of storytelling that could have backfired horribly, as one of my pet hates in narrative is openings that flashforward to the far more action-packed end of the story, before pulling you back to the present with some text saying “24 HOURS AGO…” or similar1. Obra Dinn kind of does this, starting at the end of the story and making you puzzle out how the hell things got to that point, but it’s far more committed to the idea than most examples I’ve seen and just about gets away with it; piecing together what exactly happened to the Obra Dinn and its crew is very engrossing for the approximately three hours it’ll take you to find and step through all of the watch visions in turn.


Unfortunately there is something of a catch here, and the catch is that by the time I’d sat through all of the visions once I had solved the fates of just over half of the crew. This was a bit odd, because the visions and the log book represent the sum total of the information available to you and so it should have been possible to solve all of them by that point. Obviously I’d missed a few things, so I started trudging back through the ship to take a second look at certain visions to try and see if I could pick up any extra detail. This got me another five or six fates solved, but also started to annoy me because you have to go and find the corpse again to replay a vision and walking through the ship is slow. Obra Dinn also breaks its own rules in some places and has corpses that can only be accessed through the visions of other corpses, adding even more faff; I don’t understand why, after a thing had been viewed once, it couldn’t just be replayed via the log book (which is otherwise extremely good at gathering and collating information and telling you where things are).

Anyway, while I had definitely missed some details I eventually ended up with 43 out of 58 solvable fates after going through the ship with a fine-tooth comb. To get the last 15 fates I had to spend the last hour and a half of my time with Obra Dinn not looking at anything on the ship or in any of the visions, but instead staring at this picture:


This is the picture of the crew that’s given to you along with the log book at the very start of the game, and it turns out there is an absolute shitload of information in it just based on where people are standing and how they are dressed. That’s fine in and of itself; I have no problem with this picture containing important information required to solve somebody’s identity. My problem is that for the last 15 crew members this picture appeared to contain the only information as to somebody’s identity, and that information consisted of a single very broad clue such as “is Chinese”. There were four Chinese crew members and I had the correct deaths for every single one, but because they have one line of dialogue between them and are never addressed by name by the rest of the crew I had nothing to go on, unless it turns out that they all had their names sewn inside their clothes — and even then I wouldn’t have been able to tell thanks to the constant fuzz of pixels that obliterates all fine detail. The only way I could get their names was by the very thing the system is supposed to avoid: going through a trial-and-error process of trying every single combination of names until I got the “You have solved three more fates” popup. The same goes for most of the Indian crew members, the Russian crew members, and a whole bunch of stragglers who — ridiculously — aren’t even featured in any of the death visions; instead you get a popup at the end of one the logbook chapters that basically says “Oh yeah, also there’s these seven guys who died offscreen — hope you can guess how!”

To add to this frustration, entering how somebody died into the logbook appears to have some deliberate obtuseness built into it. The way this works is you pick a cause of death from a big list of causes of death; some of these will split out into sub-menus (i.e. if you say somebody was Shot, you have to then pick whether it was by a Gun, an Arrow or a Cannon) and most of them that aren’t mundane Illness also require a culprit, even if the culprit is Falling Cargo. Leaving aside how imprecise this is, though — if somebody gets impaled by a spear and then falls into the water, were they Speared or did they Drown? — there were a couple of deaths that had me swearing at the game because the cause of death that the game accepted did not reflect what had actually happened in the game. A mild, hopefully not-too-spoilery example: a crew member hacks a limb off of somebody else, who presumably expired soon after. There are options for Axed, Knifed and Killed (by a Sword), any of which would have made more sense than the actual answer, which was Torn Apart. Did the killer use his fucking teeth? There’s other deaths that make even less sense that this one, believe me; this is not an isolated incident.


Between this and the total lack of information around some of the crew member identities I felt that getting those last dozen fates at the end of the game transitioned from “Figuring out what happened on the good ship Obra Dinn” to “Figuring out what was going on in Lucas Pope’s brain when he made the video game Obra Dinn”. This is also something I’d like to know when considering some of the frankly baffling design choices; for example, the first time you view each vision of the past it’ll be on a strict timer. If it’s a complex scene with a dozen participants, it’ll fade to black while you’re still in the middle of puzzling out the details. If it’s a simple scene with one guy stabbing another guy, you have to sit there twiddling your thumbs with no way to exit the vision until the timer is up. If you revisit a vision later you’re given all the time you need to examine the scene, but thanks to the chained nature of the visions — where the game railroads you from one corpse to another to another — it might be some time until you get the opportunity to go back and look for things that you missed. The railroading is also pretty obnoxious in places because often you’ll find the next corpse in a vision before the game actually tells you about it, but it insists on teleporting you back to the start point of the vision and having you follow a magic floating cloud back to the corpse that you already found and were standing next to when you got teleported in the first place. Obra Dinn demands that you play the game at a certain pace, and it’s not shy about taking control away from the player in order to do it.

Despite this, though, I’m somewhat hesitant to say that the developer should have gotten more feedback and sanded off the rough edges. I mean, he absolutely should have and I’d much prefer it if he had, but I also think that if he were the kind of person who did that then he wouldn’t have made Obra Dinn in the first place; he’d have made something much more immediately accessible and I wouldn’t have gotten to play Obra Dinn at all. It’s very much the kind of weird and unusual experience that I want out of indie gaming, and that’s something I’m willing to climb over a lot of clunk and cruft to get to. Obra Dinn has a much higher incidence of this than I’m really comfortable with, but I feel like it just about pulls off its mission in spite of its rendering engine that threatens to short-circuit my ocular nerves, along with the other odd mental tics of Lucas Pope.  I would be wary of having your expectations built up too much by the canonisation Obra Dinn is currently receiving in the gaming press, but unlike most indie darlings Return Of The Obra Dinn actually has some substance to back up its stylised visuals, and is definitely worth a look if you fancy something a little bit different.

  1. Although it might as well just read “We are hack writers who have absolutely no confidence in the ability of our narrative to hold somebody’s attention for 45 minutes so we need to sex it up somehow”.
Tagged , ,

2 thoughts on “Thoughts: Return Of The Obra Dinn

  1. Anonymous says:

    Spoiler alert
    It seems you missed the hammock numbers..

    • Hentzau says:

      SPOILERS: After some reading around: yes, I did. Which makes me feel slightly more positively about those last few crew members, but I also stand by the criticism that that’s exactly the kind of fine detail that the visual style obscures. I was paying more attention to voices, positions, body language (and it’s to the game’s credit that it leverages these so well while only dipping into artificial exposition a couple of times) and I suspect I never would have noticed the hammock numbers for hours of looking for them.

Leave a Reply