Back in 2013, developer Lucas Pope released a game that played more like a logic puzzle or spreadsheet simulator than a standard videogame. Papers, Please was compelling storytelling wrapped in simplicity: you scanned papers and passports, allowing people to gain entry to the border. Pope’s unique sense of game design was evident throughout, from the sparse visuals to mechanics to even the music. There was nothing else quite like it, and while some games have come along since with similar intentions, nothing else has really come close.
For a while, it was a mystery to what Pope was working on next. Fortunately, The Return of the Obra Dinn is just as unique, just as intriguing as Papers, Please – maybe more so. Maybe you’ll look at those grainy screenshots and seek your interactive fun elsewhere; this would be a big mistake as you’d be missing out on one of the most creative, thought-provoking interactive mysteries of the year. Believe it.
The first thing you’ll notice are the stark graphical choices. Everything is chunky, gray/green and in the style of a dithering pointillism. It takes our HD-spoiled eyes time to adjust but once they do, you can start to see the beauty in the world. Or in this case, the ship. You play an insurance adjuster sent to an empty ship with the sole purpose of figuring out what happened to its crew. Armed with a passenger manifest, detailed pictures of everyone on board and (here’s the kicker) a pocket watch with the ability to go back to their exact moment of death you must figure out the name and cause of death of each of the 60 people aboard the ship.
That’s it. That’s the game. Investigate one person’s death and get information about the others, all in the hope you’ll eventually figure out what happened to everyone. Sounds simple, right? Yet it’s presented in a way I’ve never experienced before. Similar to a classic logic puzzle you’d find in a newspaper or puzzle book, here its transformative in such a way that honestly makes it one of the best detective games ever made.
The first time you board the ship, you’ll find a body laying on the floor. The skeletal remains sit in front of a door with no signs of what happened to him. Upon approaching the corpse, you’ll pull out your pocket watch and once you activate it, the screen will go black. During this time you’ll hear an audio clip. An argument ensues followed by a loud gunshot as you slam right back into the game with a man pointing a gun right at your face, muzzle flash fully extended outward.
During this time, time is frozen and you’re able to walk around freely within the constraints of the area, able to inspect each person in the scene and see what they’re doing while another life is ending. By holding down the interact button, you’ll be taken to their spot on the “crew map” picture. You’ll be cross-referencing this image constantly because even the drawing itself offers clues as to who people are and exactly where they stand amongst the ranks of the others.
Through these timed sections you’ll eventually start opening doors that lead you into different parts of the ship, which in turn lead to more mysterious to unravel and story to unlock. All of which culminates to where you’ve seen everything but the final mystery; this blocked part only becomes accessible once you’ve figured out who’s who and their cause of death. The game is almost excruciatingly precise, so pay close attention to all the story beats as you’re unraveling the mystery.
This level of granularity extends to you inspecting specific shoe styles and places on the ship, a process where even individual accents become clues to a person’s country of origin. “There’s only three Topmen left, and this one has a Scottish accent? He’s probably the Topman from Scotland then!”
It helps having multiple minds working on the same puzzle. I actually played Obra Dinn with my wife and father, discovering it’s one of those rare single-player games that works tremendously well in a multiplayer format. Each of us were able to work out different aspects from the clues, talking among each other as we tried to gauge who was who. Everyone can make their guess, but only the correct one help reveal you’re making progress, with a satisfactory chime accompanying each unlock. The overall rewarding nature of the game is second to none as that chime is just as rewarding as the last time you heard it.
The story goes into some unique and intriguing directions, touching on some interesting and unexpected themes and threads that are best experienced blindly and without spoilers. Some of this you’ll see coming, most you won’t. Only once everything is said and done, when everything is figured out, you’re able to understand what actually happened on that ship. No spoilers, but it’s here where the game suggests further adventures into this strangely complex world.
But maybe that’s just hopeful projection. I know it’s hard to persuade a developer he should make a sequel, but I’ve never wanted more of a videogame than I have with The Return of the Obra Dinn. I suspect Lucas Pope is someone who likes to push boundaries and try new things each time, but in some cases a little more of what this game offers wouldn’t hurt. Truth be told, I’ve seldom been so engrossed in a game – or its mechanics – as I have here. It’s easily one of the freshest, most original experiences I’ve had in years, if not ever. That’s not hyperbole; that’s The Return of Obra Dinn.