Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn is a puzzle video game created by Lucas Pope. It was his second commercial game, following 2013's Papers, Please, and was released for macOS and Microsoft Windows in October 2018, and with ports for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One releasing a year later.
|Return of the Obra Dinn|
Return of the Obra Dinn is set aboard a fictional East India Company ghost ship in the early 1800s whose crew and passengers have all mysteriously died or disappeared, with the game's objective being to discover how. The player, as an agent of the shipping company assessing what happened, uses a combination of deductive reasoning and the use of a Memento Mortem stopwatch to return to the moment of a crew member's death to determine the identity of each of the sixty crew members, how they died and, if applicable, their killer. The game, played from the first-person view, uses a "1-bit" monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh computers.
Return of the Obra Dinn was praised for its gameplay, art style, and narrative. It was named as one of the best video games of 2018 by several publications, and also was nominated for and won several awards.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, the player takes the role of an insurance adjuster for the London office East India Company in 1807. The Obra Dinn, insured by the East India Company, went missing in 1803 as it was to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, but since washed up in port with all sixty passengers and crew dead or missing. The player is tasked to determine the fate of all of the passengers and crew, including their names, where and how they met their fate, if they were killed, who their killer was, and their location should they be alive.
The game is played out from a first-person view, allowing the player to explore the Obra Dinn, using a monochromatic dithering style that mimics approaches that games on early home computers like the Macintosh had used to simulate shading and color. To help complete the task, the player is given a log book that includes a drawing of all the crew members, the crew roster, and layouts of the ship. They are also given the "Memento Mortem", a pocket watch-like device that can be activated when the player encounters one of the corpses on the ship. The Memento Mortem plays back the audio of the moments before the person's death, and allows the player to explore the area around the frozen moment of death to identify who was present and other visual details. Once players have seen each moment, the log book automatically fills in some of the details of that event (such as the location, the visual identity of the crew members present at the event, and the dialog heard in the moments before death), allowing the player to cross reference this information with other information already learned. In some cases, the Memento Mortem will react following this process to reveal another death, guiding the player to where that corpse lays before repeating the investigation process. Certain sections of the ship are not available until the player has observed all the death moments in a certain area. The player can review all previously seen memories at any time to observe any new clues they might have missed following later investigation.
The game requires the player to search for clues to determine the fate of each crew member; fates are selected from a predefined list of verbs – because some of the deaths are visually ambiguous, the game allows for some leeway and accepts more than one solution. The game does not provide explicit clues for how each crew member died or towards their identity, requiring the player to narrow possibilities down by exclusion. The player can refine their guesses as they gain more information; the game is only over once the player has correctly identified the names and fates. When a player has properly established the names and reasons for death for any three, the game affirms this information to the player, locking those changes and effectively reducing the complexity of the puzzle.
When the Obra Dinn returns to its England port almost five years after going missing, the East India Company sends an insurance adjuster to determine what happened aboard the ship. Through the Memento Mortem and other clues, the adjuster works out the sequence of events since the ship's launch.
The Obra Dinn had launched with a number of passengers, including two royal Formosans and their guards carrying an exquisite treasure chest, which they claimed would help to repel dangers from the ocean. Initial calamity struck after launch, with one crew member killed by falling cargo, and two others taken by pneumonia. However, a small group of the crew saw the potential of stealing the Formosan chest, and as they neared the Canary Islands, they abducted the royal Formosans and the chest via rowboat. As they rowed away, three mermaids attacked the boats and killed several of the group. The mermaids' attack was quelled when a Formosan pulled a shell out of the chest, stunning the mermaids, but dying in the process. The remaining crew member returned to the Obra Dinn, along with the mermaids captured and the shells they held. As they were brought aboard, the mermaids attacked and killed more of the crew before they were subdued and locked in the lazarette.
The Obra Dinn circled around to return to England due to the number of tragedies and the mermaids they discovered. As they started their return, the mermaids caused a terrible storm to strike, and a pair of sea demons mounted on giant spider crabs boarded the ship with the intent to reach the lazarette, killing more of the crew before being put down. After dispelling the first assault, the ship was attacked by a kraken, killing more crewmen and the captain's wife. The captain went to the lazarette and threatened to kill all the mermaids in hopes of ending the attack. He executed two before the final one called off the kraken. The shells and the surviving mermaid were then tossed overboard, with the mermaid agreeing to send the ship back to England. The surviving passengers and some of the crew decided to abandon the Obra Dinn and set off for the western coast of Africa. The ship's surgeon, knowing that the East India Company will investigate the ship via the Memento Mortem, purposefully killed a monkey in the lazarette and kept its paw before he left with the others. The surviving crew turned on the captain, wanting to reclaim the chest and shells as compensation for all their hardships, not knowing he had thrown them overboard. The captain killed the remaining crew, and then next to his wife's body, committed suicide.
Several years later, the insurance adjuster (the player character) learns of all the events by exploring the ship, except those that happened in the lazarette. On return to land, they mail the completed book to the specified address. A year later, the book is mailed back along with the monkey's paw, through which the adjuster uses the Memento Mortem to learn what happened in the lazarette and complete the story of the Obra Dinn.
Over the course of his career, Lucas Pope had developed an appreciation of 1-bit graphics used in many of the early Macintosh games. Following Papers, Please, Pope had wanted to make a game that used the 1-bit aesthetic as a new experimental game, leading him to develop a game engine that allowed the player to move about in a 3D space but all rendered in this style within the Unity engine. Pope faced some preliminary issues at this stage. He wanted to be sure that what was being rendered in 1-bit style was visually legible to players from most angles, challenging him on some of the rendering aspects. Separately, he found that while the 1-bit graphics worked fine when displayed in an on-screen window, at full screen resolution, players started to get motion sickness. He had to modify his rendering routines to create the equivalent of motion blur for his dithering approach to help smooth out the movements. At one point, Pope had considered adding rendering effects to make the game appear as if it was running on a cathode ray tube screen, but opted against this, feeling it would take away from the aesthetic he wanted.
With the style down, he then worked backwards to determine what game to make from this. His initial idea was where the player character repeatedly died; the player would see the events of the death from their corpse, and then would be transported back one minute before their death to manipulate the environment and others as to recreate that death. However, Pope found this technically challenging, but sparked the idea of using freeze-frame flashbacks to moments of death and using that approach and mechanism to tell a story. This led to the narrative of the Obra Dinn, but leaving a storytelling challenge of explaining all of the deaths and disappearances of the crewmembers through these moments of death. This subsequently led to the idea of the log book the player would carry, tracking the names of the crew in the same manner that the real East India Company had used.
The narrative aspect took the longest part of the development period. Pope had teased Return of the Obra Dinn in 2014 while completing Papers, Please, anticipating a release that year or the next. Instead, coming up with the narrative and gameplay elements around that took about two more years of work, requiring him to learn some of the tricks involved with the Maya Embedded Language. Pope originally released a free, limited demo for the 2016 Game Developers Conference, which only had six characters for the player to deduce, but otherwise all the other mechanics in place. In this situation, the deaths the player discovered all occurred in chronological order as they discovered them. Feedback from this was positive, so he began to expand the game's story, knowing that he had to make sure enough information was conveyed in the brief moments of time around the point of death. Internally he created his own spreadsheets to link all the various characters and their fates together, as well as making sure that players would be able to follow chains of deaths for discovering the deaths of certain characters. This ended with him creating the necessary dialog elements for the various scenes, and hiring voice actors to read them, provided by locals Pope auditioned that could mimic the accents of the time period.
With the more complete story worked out, Pope created a new demo to take to the PAX Australia event in November 2016, which added thirteen additional characters to the original demo. However, unlike the first demo, the deaths here were presented out of chronological order, and players were confused about how to progress. Pope recognized this confusion would become worse with the full cast of characters he had planned. He found a solution by having ten events in the narrative serve as a catalyst for a certain number of deaths, breaking out the story into these ten sections and allowing the story and the information to be more digestible to the player. This then led more to the development of the logbook mechanism, since the order of the deaths in its pages effectively served as the timeline for the game. Now with the logbook serving as a key mechanism of the game, Pope set out to making the book as easy to use without the need for in-game tutorials and making controls work well for both consoles and personal computers.
Pope stated he was not worried about how well Return of the Obra Dinn performed financially, as he was still earning appreciable revenue from Papers, Please; he considered the game something he wanted to make and hope that people enjoy it, and thus did not pressure himself with any deadlines or marketing aspects for the game. Return of the Obra Dinn was released for Microsoft Windows and macOS computers on October 17, 2018, published by the Japanese-based studio 3909. Versions for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, ported by Warp Digital, were released on October 18, 2019.
Return of the Obra Dinn received "generally favorable reviews", according to review aggregator Metacritic. Polygon's Colin Campbell recommended the game, saying "Return of the Obra Dinn takes the whodunit’s conventions and twists them into kaleidoscopic narratives that are perplexing and delightful. This isn’t merely a great game, it’s the work of an intense and creative intelligence."
Several video game journalists named Return of the Obra Dinn among the year's best games, including Edge, Polygon, USGamer,, GameSpot, The Nerdist, The Daily Telegraph, The New Yorker, and The Escapist.
|2018||The Game Awards||Best Independent Game||Nominated|||
|Best Art Direction||Won|
|Titanium Awards||Game of the Year||Nominated|||
|Best Indie Game||Won|
|Best Narrative Design||Nominated|
|Best Game Design||Nominated|
|2019||New York Game Awards||Off Broadway Award for Best Indie Game||Nominated|||
|22nd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards||Game of the Year||Nominated|||
|Adventure Game of the Year||Nominated|
|Outstanding Achievement in Game Design||Nominated|
|Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction||Nominated|
|Outstanding Achievement in Story||Nominated|
|Outstanding Achievement for an Independent Game||Nominated|
|NAVGTR Awards||Game, Puzzle||Nominated|||
|SXSW Gaming Awards||Excellence in Art||Nominated|||
|Excellence in Design||Nominated|
|Independent Games Festival Awards||Seumas McNally Grand Prize||Won|||
|Excellence in Visual Art||Nominated|
|Excellence in Narrative||Won|
|Excellence in Audio||Nominated|
|Excellence in Design||Nominated|
|Game Developers Choice Awards||Game of the Year||Nominated|||
|Best Visual Art||Nominated|
|15th British Academy Games Awards||Best Game||Nominated|||
|Italian Video Game Awards||Best Art Direction||Nominated|||
|Best Indie Game||Nominated|
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