The Return of the Obra Dinn

I have been obsessed lately with playing a game called The Return of the Obra Dinn lately. I play it on the Microsoft Windows platform through the GOG (Good Old Games) app. I found out about the game by watching the early parts being played by Barry Kramer on Twitch. The game was developed and designed by Lucas Pope. It is his second commercial game after the highly celebrated Papers, Please. Like his earlier game, this game plays with your perceptions and completely submerges you into a world unlike your own. After watching some footage, I really wanted to play it myself because the game fascinated me.

The game is set in 1807 near the port of London, England. You play as an insurance adjuster for the East India Trading Company who is tasked with investigating a ship named the Obra Dinn. The ship was supposed to travel around the Cape of Good Hope but it disappeared in 1803. All sixty souls on board are unaccounted for. You are tasked with finding the fates of all sixty people who were on board. Some died, some disappeared, and some may still be alive somewhere. You are given a journal with a roster of names and three pieces of artwork with people’s faces on it. Every single passenger and crewmember is depicted in one of those drawings to help you match them up.

That is where things start getting weird. The East India Trading Company has also given you a magical compass. Now, I know some people are immediately thinking of the previous connection between The East India Trading Company and a magical compass in Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean franchise but it’s not that. This compass reacts to the remains of the deceased and transports the user into the moment of that person’s death. When you activate the compass, you are transported into a snapshot of a moment in the voyage of the Obra Dinn. You are immediately confronted with a grisly death in progress. It is often quite impossible to predict what you will be walking into next. Along with being inside the visual memory, you also get a short audio log of anything said directly before and after the death. A lot of this is automatically entered into your journal.

These are not only two-dimensional images either. They are three-dimensional environments that you can walk around in. You can peer at people’s faces and they will immediately be matched up with their picture in the drawings. This gives you your first hints on who they might be. You learn who people are from who people hang out with, what they do in crisis and downtime, and even where they sleep. You learn what happened to them by following the story from body to body, opening up more of the ship to really dig into what happened. It is a roller coaster of a story that I definitely do not want to spoil. Needless to say, it is an inspiring tale of fantasy and high seas adventure and intrigue.

From there it is a game of being a proper detective and using clues and informed guesswork to determine everybody’s identity and fate. As you get three fates correct, they are magically confirmed so that you know that you are making progress. At present I have determined 51 of 60 fates after playing for hours, running back and forth through memories for evidence and studying the journal. It feels so intimate being in such close quarters with these memories like you are part of their story. I am very close to completing the game but the last few puzzle pieces are hard to settle. Added to that, there is a sort of blacked out period in the journey that you can only get access to once you have submitted all but the last few fates. I eagerly await what horrible thing happened in that time period.

I definitely recommend the game. For those who are squeamish, the art style turns everything into a sketch style so the gore and violence are not photo-realistic. However, the deaths are still incredibly visceral, especially with the accompanying audio logs. The moment of reveal of each death can be horrific but most of the game is spent in quiet reflection, study, and observation to figure things out. The game has captured my imagination and I would love to see a similar game made in the future because I know that when I finish I will want more.

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3 Responses to “The Return of the Obra Dinn”

  1. Sue Says:

    Wow. This sounds like my kind of game. I’m going to check it out!


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