I’m not sure who I feel worse for right now, Lucas Pope or other devs aspiring to release their own indie hit… On one hand you have to feel for Lucas Pope because now he’s created Papers Please and Return of the Obra Dinn, releasing both to great success and critical acclaim, so now all eyes are on him to see what he does next. Don’t they always say the third album is the difficult one? On the other hand, imagine what it must be like to be a solo indie dev these days, in University or beyond. You can’t win awards and get famous through your hot take on pixel sprite platforming now! No, for you to achieve success what you need to do is come up with a unique mechanic which is simultaneously simple and intuitive but also engaging and involved, you’ll need to write an exciting story which prompts discussion and thought, and then on top of that you can sprinkle in the graphics and animations, which also ought to be unique enough that someone could point to a still frame from it and recognise what it’s from. And even then you’ll still be compared against Lucas Pope. So, y’know, it’s not asking much!
On the bright side, this is great news for those of us who like video games! Each time something like this happens it’s less likely that one of those games that’s desperate to be Limbo will win the Indie Game of the Year award (not that I dislike Limbo, more that I think that these days making a game like Limbo is the video game equivalent of Oscar bait).
So, in case you missed the dripping subtext of those first couple of paragraphs, Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn is absolutely smashing. It’s a first-person puzzle game in which you are an insurance assessor (investigator? I don’t know the terminology) who is attempting to discover what happened to the fate of the East India Company sailing ship: the Obra Dinn. It vanished off the coast of Africa and has now returned sans crew or passengers and it’s up to you to discover what happened with the aid of a magic pocket watch which displays the last moments of each crew member.
Sounds like this would make it easy to figure out what happened to everyone, but beyond it being obvious when someone is getting shot by a gun or is dying of disease, most of the crew and passengers are not quite so good as to shout out their name and rank in the last abrupt 5 seconds of their lives. Therefore, it is up to you to make deductions from the numerous small snippets you are shown who is who and what befell them.
Along with the stopwatch, you also have a ledger which contains drawings of each crew member as well as a full list of each crew member and passenger on board the last fateful voyage of the Obra Dinn.
The final moments of the various crew members are divided up into scenes which play across several chapters and the order of discovery of these chapters runs pretty much from the end to the beginning of the trip. So not only are you gradually piecing together who each person is, but also the overall story of the ship, in reverse order.
Some of the fates are obviously very straightforward, with people being named right before their deaths (or the one who killed them being named). As you solve more and more though you gradually have to start working harder and harder and observing more and also making more assumptions. And there’s often a lot of different sources you have to consider while you work through figuring everything out. You can deduce who crew members are because of their uniforms in the pictures of then, because of their accents or where they come from (which is listed in the roster), you can infer relationships between more than a few as well.
You also have to garner a basic understanding of 19th century sailing ships and the various roles the crew will have. Such as the difference between a seaman and a topman, or who the midshipmen and the helmsman are.
Naturally some of the observations are actually ridiculously tricky to work out, such as recognising one individual by a tattoo or figuring out who is who between the four (seemingly) identical Chinese topmen. Some of the identities also fall into the category of “being fed right to you in such an obvious way that you actually don’t even notice it and are thus taunted by the game informing you that knowing who these people (or what happened to them) should be eaaasy peasy!”
The game allows a measure of guesswork along with genuine deductions because every time you get three fates of the crew completely correct in your ledger (I.e. their name, how they died and potentially who/what killed them) then these three become typeset into the book, so as to make it clear that these are correct. This is actually pretty smart mechanically because it means that you can’t really just cheese the whole thing and guess who everyone is randomly (because of the massive number of possible combinations for trying to correctly guess 3 people). But at the same point if you have two correct and the fate of a third definitely correct, then you can cheese it a little in order to figure out the final one’s name.
This does however mean that sometimes if you’re stuck, solving some characters end up being solved by brute force and others by process of elimination. While presumably this was part of the design of the game, I have to admit it did feel a little bit like cheating to not actually be identifying some individuals beyond the game telling you that you did.
It’s a puzzle game which succeeded in treading the line of being challenging but not TOO difficult perfectly. And in fact it was challenging enough in many areas that when I actually did discover something which allowed me to correctly solve three fates then I would be absolutely over the moon about it. I’d be strutting about that deck feeling like Sherlock Holmes, talking over my shoulder to Watson about how it was absolutely elementary how one could deduce who that crew member was, Watson. It’s the way it also sometimes requires you to bring in small facets of background knowledge which it doesn’t just feed you that really can make you feel just so damned smart when you pick up on it and solve something.
Unfortunately, observation isn’t exactly my strongest talent and I have to admit that I got stuck after solving around half the crew and needed to find a few online prompts to help nudge me towards solving a few others before I could get back on track. So I have to admit that for me personally I spent a similar amount of time feeling like a fraud as I did like Poirot, but your mileage may vary.
What I would say though is that for the average player, I feel like there might be more than a bit of frustration and alt-tabbing to find some clues. It’s tough to say this is a mark against the game though that I just wasn’t careful enough to catch some of the clues that the game gives you. I would say though that even with some cheating, solving the rest of it still felt satisfying enough to overrule the frustration.
In terms of graphics, the game is in 3D but primarily most of the things you examine are still “images” that you can wander around in with very little actual animation outside of this. Everything is designed in a stark black and white aesthetic, which I personally actually quite liked. With this in mind though, I have to say that the graphics seem far more appealing when at motion. While it is possible to spend a long time zooming in on small details, it’s when doing this that the harshness of the black and white can feeling a little overwhelming. Having said that though, despite its aesthetic, most of the characters and the features of the ship tend to be instantly recognisable anyway, so whatever else you ask from it, it does what is required of it.
The game also has a slightly odd design choice in that after you enter each scene it insists you look around for a minute or so before it actually allows you to start making progress. Obviously, you are supposed to look around carefully anyway, but it’s weird that each time there is an unskippable bit where you have to keep looking around until it tells you that you can move on (something which is particularly noticeable in the more compact scenes where you might have seen everything after a few seconds).
The other major unfortunate downside of Obra Dinn is that it has that Portal-like quality that once you’ve beaten it then really you’ve seen everything it has to offer and it has more or less zero replay value. Worse than that even is when you try and recommend it to others and you have to try and get them to solve things for themselves without giving any clues and you have to sit, rocking back and forward as they ignore the stuff you now know is there.
Beyond all of this it feels difficult to say much more about it, because really that’s all there is to it. It’s a small, compact, game, but is just so damned fiendishly clever that as a puzzle game it really is a proper joy to attempt to play and complete. There’s a real beauty in its simplicity of filing and organising information which feels like it goes against every instinct as to what “fun” in games is, but I’ll be damned if it’s actually not good fun.
On top of all that, if that’s not enough to convince you, the story of the ship and its crew as a whole is also fairly compelling. Due to the piecemeal way it is delivered though, once again you are sort of forced to make a few deductions and guesses about what really happened.
It’s a game which absolutely insists on not holding your hand, and frankly it’s all the better for it. It makes it that much more challenging and thus that much more satisfying when you successfully work something out.
Again, I will admit that your mileage may vary with the game depending on how patient you can be with it and how careful and meticulous you may be with your observations. I’m going to go ahead and say that I will highly recommend Obra Dinn to just about everyone but will also add that I feel it’s much more niche than the games I usually give such glowing praise to.
|· Beautifully simple mechanics and style that are both intuitive but also refreshing
· A genuinely clever and challenging puzzle that is rewarding to complete and makes you feel that much smarter
· Strong story-writing chops backs up the puzzle to make you constantly want to discover more
· Seriously, it’s just a fucking excellent puzzle…
· You’ll look super smart and non-mainstream if you rave about it
|· Art-style might feel a little tiring after a while of staring at it
· Basically zero replay value due to the inherent nature of the game
· Cheesing parts of the game feels occasionally necessary which somewhat defeats the purpose it is going for