In the sphere of professional wrestling, there is a piece of advice that veteran wrestlers have shared with rookie talent, and that advice is: don’t forget to take in the moment. No matter how overwhelming the spectacle and pressure of your big moment; don’t forget to pause and enjoy it while it lasts, because moments like these don’t come around often.
Now, whilst professional wrestling and indie adventure games are pretty far apart on the entertainment spectrum, I find the same advice holds true for Return of the Obra Dinn. The first thing players need to know about this rather wonderful game is that it really shouldn’t be rushed. Its story will stick in your mind long after the credits roll, but that advice still stands. Take your time to soak this one in. It will be over sooner than you think!
Billed by its creator, Lucas Pope (Papers, Please), as “an insurance adventure with minimal colour”, the game immediately sets itself apart with its “1-bit” graphics and tale of nautical mystery set in the eighteen hundreds. The merchant vessel Obra Dinn (Oooh·Bra·Dinn) has returned to port after five years of being lost at sea. With signs of damage and yet no sign of the crew, the Obra Dinn has become a floating enigma that players (in the role of an insurance operative) must now crack with only their logbook and a curious pocketwatch to aid them.
The goal is to uncover the fates of everyone who was present on the ship when it set sail. Using an illustration and a logbook of names, players must correctly match names to faces and record the fates of each character. Players can find out these details by using the pocket watch; a magical artefact that transports its holder through time to relive the final moments of any corpse in the nearby vicinity.
With snippets of sound and a frozen snapshot of what the ship looked like back then, players will move through the various 3D scenes and analyse them for clues, whether they be obvious ones like a character visibly committing suicide, or a subtle one like a foreign accent heard over the din of some choppy waters.
Once you’ve recorded three correct fates against three correct names, the game strikes the matching characters from the logbook. This loop is addictive because every correct deduction narrows down your options and inches you visibly closer to the final chapter. It’s also satisfying having that “Ah-ha!” moment with deductions you had previously been stuck on.
The thrill of a correct deduction is sublime, with chapter markers and other little details to help keep track of a grand story that’s told out of order. Because there are so few mechanical details to worry about, Return of the Obra Dinn is a video game that’s very easy to learn.
The fates often have multiple correct answers, which makes interpreting some of the darker scenes easier, and some can be brute-forced or guessed outright if you’re close to being correct. There are some niggly fates to grasp towards the end, but the clue hunt is mostly smooth, even if repeatedly traversing the ship and keeping track of dead bodies can become a chore.
Its time-hopping narrative may remind some of The Last Express, though Return of the Obra Dinn is a far less kinetic experience than most adventure games are. What little music the game has is excellently deployed though; you won’t fail to appreciate the drama even when the action is kept static, which is most of the time!
Nevertheless, the gameplay may be too passive for some people’s tastes, as players must be patient enough to collect evidence before jumping to conclusions. For such a short game, there is quite a lot of watching and clicking to do before you can start sleuthing.
Fortunate then that the wild and unpredictable story is gripping from the very first vignette. Indeed, the mysterious chronology here is infused with deliberate gaps to create an exciting tale that most players may not fully grasp even after the logbook is filled.
In one way, this feels like a true legacy game; the sort of experience that only works for one run, and it’s a short run that can be cleared in less than 10 hours.
Honestly though, forget the numbers! Return of the Obra Dinn is a fresh and unique experience with a foreboding story that never loses its twisted sense of wonder. Play it, enjoy it, finish it.
Just don’t forget to take in the moment!