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There’s not much I can say about Lucas Pope’s 2018 game Return of the Obra Dinn that hasn’t already been said. It’s a fantastic game, tasking players with solving the mystery of the titular ship when it drifts into harbor in 1807, with all 60 crew and passengers unaccounted for. Fortunately, our protagonist possesses a magical pocketwatch that allows them to see (and also, separately, to hear) someone’s moment of death. Examining these frozen moments in time, players must determine what transpired, figure out who else was there, and eventually assign faces to the ship’s roster and deduce what happened to all of them. The game is one big intertwined puzzle, absolutely fascinating to play and striking to look at with its retro-styled, two color dithered art. But you probably already knew all of that already, since Return of the Obra Dinn has received rave reviews everywhere.
But, I plucked it from my backlog under unusual circumstances: I was looking for a game to play together with my partner, who is much less well versed in games than I am. Return of the Obra Dinn turned out to be an excellent choice.
My partner is not completely unfamiliar with games, but she hasn’t really played any since she was a kid, when she and her brother would play rounds of Street Fighter II or collaborate on some classic adventure games. Initially I suggested some story-heavy games, but my partner didn’t just want to just follow along with a pre-written story. She wanted to solve a mystery. That’s when I thought of Return of the Obra Dinn, which resolutely does not funnel players along some preset story path. It’s up to players to figure out what happened, however they see fit to do so, and it seemed like a perfect game to approach together, discussing things as we went.
I was concerned about the first-person 3D exploration in the game, which uses the WASD and mouselook controls that, while standard across countless games in the last few decades, are nevertheless difficult to learn for those who have never encountered them before. I could take the controls, then, but first-person movement can be disorienting to watch for those who aren’t controlling it. Fortunately we were able to minimize this by reducing the mouselook sensitivity in the game settings, and by simply not making a ton of fast turns. While exploration in the game is done in real time, there’s no time pressure or need for fast reactions. I could take things slow, and was free to solicit input from my partner at every turn.
One thing I wasn’t concerned about, but in retrospect should have been, is the tone of the game. It’s spookier than I realized, and for some players that will be a dealbreaker. In our case, we were more fascinated than frightened, although we did cut short some late night sessions when things got a little too much. The story that players uncover in Return of the Obra Dinn is a grim one, but there is never any direct threat; everything that happened here happened years ago. That helped us feel a little more comfortable, but anyone considering using it as an introductory game for a friend or loved one should be sure that person is OK with things getting creepy.
If that’s OK, though, then Return of the Obra Dinn really is an excellent introductory game. That’s largely because the bulk of the game is really played outside the game. Walking around in the game is just a means of finding clues; figuring out what those clues mean is where the true challenge lies, and that doesn’t require being at the controls. You’ll need someone to control the game, of course, but a newcomer who’s just watching isn’t really “just watching”. They’re playing, because being attentive, noticing details, and making deductions and educated guesses is the game. My partner occasionally had to ask me to move to a different part of a scene to look at something, or to return to an earlier scene to see if we missed a clue, but mostly we were discussing things. Bouncing ideas off of each other, cross-referencing faces from group portraits with the crew manifest, suggesting possibilities. Familiarity with games or skill playing them is not required for any of that.
Return of the Obra Dinn also knows the power of curiosity, and how to leverage it. Even a new player who is unsure about these “video game” things will quickly find themselves intrigued by the mystery. An early death scene might, for example, show a man shooting another with a pistol. What was that about? Before the scene there’s a bit of audio, but nothing to see (a brilliant design move, which I’ll discuss more later), so we’ve heard an argument but don’t really understand it yet. Who got shot here, and why? And what’s that other guy doing in the background?
I said above that the game doesn’t funnel players down a linear story path, and that’s true, but it does exert some control over the order in which players encounter death scenes. And it does so expertly. The events that befell the Obra Dinn are divided into chapters, but these are discovered out of sequence: perhaps players see the end, then close to the beginning, then sometime in between. The scenes that make up each chapter often (but not always!) move backwards in time as players find more bodies in the memories. Sometimes these moments are within seconds of each other, and players can see how one led directly to the next; other times minutes or hours elapsed in between, and players must figure out what happened in that missing time. All of it serves the larger puzzle, leaving just enough hints so players can connect the dots.
Equally deft staging is found in each individual scene, where revelations come in phases. First, players hear a snippet of what’s happening, but can’t see anything: sometimes there are voices in conversation or shouting to one another, other times just the sound of a struggle or some other ambient noise. Then — at the moment of death — the frozen vignette appears, with players’ view carefully positioned on the victim. It can take a few moments to realize what one is seeing here, and the unfortunate soul’s fate may or may not be what the audio suggested. Next, as players look around, they begin to take in what is happening in the rest of the scene, the context for this particular death. And it’s often very different from what one might expect. I was consistently impressed, every time.
I also came to really appreciate the separation of audio and visual aspects in the game. For one, it means that Lucas Pope never had to animate any of the characters or scenes. All of the “action”, so to speak, is audio-only. It also means players can rarely be sure who was speaking, and must deduce identities carefully. It also seemed like a good thematic match for the game, reminding me of silent film where the screen would cut to a blank frame with text whenever anything important was being said. That feels appropriate for the visual style of the game, which isn’t just for looks. If players can get close to someone in a scene they can “zoom in” to reveal their face on the group portrait, but the grainy, dithered art means it’s hard to tell people apart if they’re far away. My partner described it as like a photocopy of newsprint, and that’s spot on. A detailed photograph, reduced to just black ink on light paper, smudged just enough that it’s hard to make out. Players are forced to make guesses based on whether someone’s shirt is light or dark, or whether they have a distinctive hat or something. Sometimes, there’s no way to determine who people are in a particular scene aside from educated guesses based on other scenes. It’s simply too hard to make them out.
That all feeds into the interconnected puzzle of accounting for every single person on the ship, which we found immensely satisfying to solve together. Players must not only identify each person, but also assign their fate. Some were killed by a crewman or passenger, and players must identify the killer as well. Perfect information is rare, so logical deduction and reasoned assumptions are essential. Brilliantly, correct assignments are only revealed in sets of three, so we couldn’t just guess blindly. We could make strategic guesses, but only if we were pretty sure about two other people first, and Return of the Obra Dinn provides just enough hints to let us pull this off, many times throughout the game. With two of us playing, we never got stuck; one of us always had some idea for where to look next or what to guess. We even found ourselves playing when the game wasn’t running, discussing how we wanted to return to a particular scene to look more carefully, or having flashes of insight into what was going on in that one confusing bit. I’m also certain that our path to the solution was different than it would be for others, who might have had different intuitive leaps. The crewman we identified last may have been one of the first solved by someone else, and since they knew who that was, it would have been easier for them to solve those other people… it’s just really impressive design. There’s even an implication that players can move on and finish the game without solving everything, and I’m curious what the narrative consequences for that would be.
So, yes: Return of the Obra Dinn is an excellent introduction to games, and a great game to play collaboratively with others. If you haven’t played it yet, and you’re looking for a game to share with a gaming neophyte in your life, it’s an easy recommendation. My partner and I are now looking into other games that might feature similar collaborative detective work, and if we find any winners I’ll be sure to write about them here. In the meantime, what are your recommendations for introductory games? Let us know in the comments!