Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn is an adventure and puzzle video game created by American video game designer Lucas Pope, and published by Japanese studio 3909. It was his second commercial game, following 2013's Papers, Please, and was released for macOS and Microsoft Windows in October 2018 and for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One a year later.

Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn logo-title.jpg
Publisher(s)3909 LLC.
Designer(s)Lucas Pope
Artist(s)Lucas Pope
EngineUnity
Platform(s)
Release
  • macOS, Windows
  • October 18, 2018
  • Switch, PS4, Xbox One
  • October 18, 2019
Genre(s)Adventure, puzzle
Mode(s)Single-player

The game is set in 1807 with the player assuming the role of insurance inspector for the East India Company. The Obra Dinn, a merchant ship missing for five years, has reappeared off the coast of England with no one alive aboard. The player is dispatched to the ghost ship to perform an appraisal, reconstruct the events of the voyage, and determine the fates of all sixty souls aboard, providing a cause of death for those deceased or a probable current location for those presumed living. Investigation is accomplished through the use of the "Memento Mortem", a pocket watch capable of transporting its user to the moment of death of any corpse located. The game, played in first-person perspective, 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, likening the game to Pope's previous work, and Her Story. It was cited as among the best games of the year and won several awards, including the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

GameplayEdit

 
The Memento Mortem being used to investigate the cause of death of one of the crewmembers

The Obra Dinn, insured by the East India Company, went missing in 1803 as it was to sail around the Cape of Good Hope. It has since washed up in port with all sixty passengers and crew dead or missing.[1] The player is tasked with determining the fate of all souls on board, including their names, where and how they met their fate, who their killer was, and their location should they be alive.[2]

Return of the Obra Dinn is effectively one large logic puzzle.[3][4] The game is played as a first-person adventure game, allowing the player to fully explore the Obra Dinn, using a monochromatic dithering style to mimic the shading and color methods of early computer games.[5][6][7] To help track their progress, the player is given a logbook that includes a drawing of all the crew members, the crew roster, and blueprints of the ship. They are also given the Memento Mortem, a pocketwatch-like device that can be used on a corpse. When activated, the player will hear the events that transpired in the seconds immediately before death, and can then explore the moment of death frozen in time. This is used to identify who was present, to capture moments in other rooms or on other decks, and to make note of details at the scene. These are used to help connect the faces of crewmates to their names and roles. While exploring a moment of death, the player can use the pocketwatch again to enter more corpses captured in the vision.[8]

With each death, the logbook automatically fills in basic information. The player is tasked only with naming those present and accurately describing their cause of death. Naming the crew is done through small clues, inferences, and logical deduction – mainly, narrowing possibilities as the game progresses. The causes of death are selected out of a catalogue, and some deaths will accept more than one solution. The player can revise their logbook as they gain more information, but to prevent guesswork, correct "fates" are validated only in sets of three.[5]

PlotEdit

The Obra Dinn, an East Indiaman trade ship, departs from Falmouth to the Orient in 1802 with 51 crewmen and 9 passengers. The ship fails to meet her rendezvous at the Cape of Good Hope, and is declared lost. Five years later, the Obra Dinn reappears off the coast of England with every hand either dead or missing. The East India Company sends its Chief Inspector to determine what happened aboard the ship. The inspector has received from Henry Evans, the ship's surgeon, a logbook and the Memento Mortem stopwatch. With these and other clues, the inspector works out the sequence of events after 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. 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 and fled. However, three mermaids ambushed the boats killing several of the group. The mermaids' attack was quelled when a Formosan pulled a shell out of the chest, stunning the mermaids, but resulting in his death. The remaining crew member returned to the Obra Dinn, along with the captured mermaids and their shells, but he was shot on approach by the surviving Formosan guard. 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 increasing number of deaths. 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 intent on reaching the lazarette to liberate the mermaids, killing more of the crew before being put down. Shortly 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 guide the ship back to England. The surviving passengers and some of the crew decided to abandon the Obra Dinn and make for the western coast of Africa. Evans, knowing that the East India Company will investigate the ship via the Memento Mortem, purposefully killed his pet monkey inside the locked lazarette, and kept its paw for safekeeping before leaving with the others. The three remaining crewmen turned on the captain, wanting to reclaim the chest and shells as compensation for their hardships, not knowing he had thrown them overboard. The captain killed the mutineers, and then, next to his wife's body, committed suicide.

Several years later, the insurance inspector is able to catalogue all the deaths on the ship, except those within the locked lazarette. After the inspector leaves the ship, a fierce storm rolls in and the Obra Dinn sinks. The completed logbook is mailed back to Evans, and an insurance report is written, compensating or fining the estates of lost crewmen, depending on their conduct. A year later, Evans mails the book back to the inspector along with the monkey's paw, allowing them to use the Memento Mortem to discover what happened in the lazarette and complete the story of the Obra Dinn.

DevelopmentEdit

Over the course of his career, American video game designer Lucas Pope had developed an appreciation of "1-bit" graphics used in many early Macintosh games. Following his prior game Papers, Please, Pope had wanted to use the 1-bit aesthetic in an experimental game, leading him to develop a game engine that allowed the player to move in a three dimensional space, rendered in a vintage style.[1] Pope wanted to ensure the game was visually legible 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 suffered from motion sickness. Rendering routines were modified to create the equivalent of motion blur for this dithering approach. At one point, Pope had considered creating a cathode ray tube render effect, but opted against this.[9]

With the style in place, Pope worked backwards to determine what game to make. His initial idea was one where the player character repeatedly died; the player would see the events of the death from their corpse, and would then be transported back one minute to manipulate the environment so as to recreate that death. However, Pope found this technically challenging, and instead sparked the idea of using freeze-frame flashbacks depicting moments of death to tell a story.[1]

The game's narrative took the longest portion of development. Pope had teased Return of the Obra Dinn in 2014 while completing Papers, Please, anticipating a release the next year.[1] Instead, it would take four more years; Pope released a limited demo for the 2016 Game Developers Conference, which had only six fates for the player to deduce.[10] Feedback from this was positive, so he began to expand the game's story more than he expected. Internally, Pope created spreadsheets to link all the various characters and their fates, and to ensure that players would be able to logically follow chains of deaths.[10] This ended with him writing the necessary dialog for some scenes and hiring voice actors, provided by locals Pope auditioned, who could mimic the accents of the time period.[1][10]

With a more complete story, Pope created a new demo to take to PAX Australia in November 2016, adding thirteen additional characters to the original demo. However, unlike the first demo, the deaths were presented out of chronological order, and players were confused about how to progress.[10] Pope realized this confusion would become worse with the full cast of characters. He found a solution by having ten events in the narrative serve as a catalyst for deaths, breaking the story into sections and allowing the plot to be more digestible to the player.[1][10] Dividing the game into "chapters" then led to the creation of the logbook, serving as the timeline for the game and cataloguing the ship's crew in the same manner as the real East India Company.[10]

Pope stated he was not worried about how well Return of the Obra Dinn would perform financially, as he was still earning appreciable revenue from Papers, Please. He considered Obra Dinn a passion project and did not pressure himself with deadlines or marketing.[1] 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.[11][12] Physical Editions were released through Limited Run Games for the PS4 and Nintendo Switch in 2020.[13]

ReceptionEdit

Return of the Obra Dinn received "generally favorable reviews", according to review aggregator website Metacritic.[14] 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."[22] Patrick Hancock for Destructoid commented that Pope had "knocked it out of the park" as a follow up to Papers, Please, and commented that even after finishing the game, he "could not stop thinking about" it.[16] Game Informer's Javy Gwaltney called the art style "visually arresting", and praised the pacing and thought put into the game. However, they were less praising of the ending, commenting that the "ultimate payoff fails to complement the thoughtful gameplay".[17]

The game received praise for being unique. Andreas Inderwildi of Rock Paper Shotgun commented that the game was more than just about logical reasoning, but that players were supposed to take into account how humans would act in an emergency.[23] In his review for Eurogamer, Christian Donlan commented that the graphical style in the game made it "feel like no other", and likened it to Sudoku.[8] Gamasutra's Katherine Cross praised the game's minimalist feel, and that the characters "came off as people".[24] Tom Marks for IGN described the game as being full of life, despite the use of still images to convey the story.[19]

Some outlets favorably compared the game to Her Story, a similar mystery-driven game where the player must work out the timeline of events and come to conclusions using numerous video clips. Campbell commented that the two games both made him reach for "a notepad and pen",[22] whilst Andrew Webster writing for The Verge commented that both games were about creating clarity even in confusing situations. Webster went on to comment that there were many ways to enjoy the game, that a player could obsessively find the mysteries in the game, or simply enjoy the "grim, shocking story".[25]

AwardsEdit

Several video game publications named Return of the Obra Dinn among 2018's best games,[26] including Edge,[27] Polygon,[28] USGamer,[29] GameSpot,[30] The Nerdist,[31] The Daily Telegraph,[32] The New Yorker,[33] and The Escapist.[34] The game also won a series of awards:

Awards won
Year Award Category Result Ref
2018 The Game Awards Best Independent Game Nominated [35][36]
Best Art Direction Won
2019 22nd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards Game of the Year Nominated [37]
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
SXSW Gaming Awards Excellence in Art Nominated [38]
Excellence in Design Nominated
Independent Games Festival Awards Seumas McNally Grand Prize Won [39][40]
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 [41][42]
Best Narrative Won
Best Visual Art Nominated
Innovation Award Nominated
15th British Academy Games Awards Best Game Nominated [43][44]
Artistic Achievement Won
Game Design Won
Game Innovation Nominated
Narrative Nominated
Original Property Nominated

ReferencesEdit

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  2. ^ "Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope details his next game". pcgamer. Archived from the original on January 9, 2021. Retrieved November 24, 2017.
  3. ^ Francis, Bryant (November 25, 2018). "For Lucas Pope, Return of the Obra Dinn was a bunch of appealing design problems". Gamasutra. Retrieved August 30, 2021.
  4. ^ Schreier, Jason (December 2, 2018). "Why Obra Dinn Is One Of The Year's Best Games". Kotaku. Retrieved August 30, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Kohler, Chris (October 18, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn: The Kotaku Review". Kotaku. Archived from the original on January 18, 2021. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  6. ^ Gault, Matthew (October 18, 2018). "'Return of the Obra Dinn' Is a Beautiful Murder Mystery by the Creator of 'Papers, Please'". Vice. Retrieved August 30, 2021.
  7. ^ Goodman, Ben (February 18, 2021). "Our favorite low-click PC games". PC Gamer. Retrieved August 30, 2021.
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  10. ^ a b c d e f Wiltshire, Alex (November 7, 2018). "How a book binds the Return of the Obra Dinn". Rock Paper Shotgun. Archived from the original on December 5, 2020. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
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  24. ^ Cross, Katherine. "Opinion: Return of the Obra Dinn is a work of art". gamasutra.com. Retrieved August 25, 2021. come off as people
  25. ^ Webster, Andrew (October 18, 2018). "The grisly mystery of Return of the Obra Dinn will make you obsessed". The Verge. Archived from the original on February 10, 2021. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
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  30. ^ Espineli, Matt (December 19, 2018). "Game Of The Year: 2018's 10 Best Games". GameSpot. Archived from the original on January 12, 2019. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  31. ^ "The 10 Best Video Games Of 2018". The Nerdist. December 17, 2018. Archived from the original on December 22, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  32. ^ Hoggins, Tom (December 21, 2018). "The 50 best games of 2018 | Our guide to the top titles of the year". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on January 15, 2021. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  33. ^ Parkin, Simon (November 28, 2018). "The Best Video Games of 2018". - The New Yorker. Archived from the original on December 4, 2020. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  34. ^ Croshaw, Ben "Yahtzee" (January 2, 2019). "2018's Best Worst and Blandest". The Escapist. Archived from the original on January 3, 2019. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
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  36. ^ Grant, Christopher (December 6, 2018). "The Game Awards 2018: Here are all the winners". Polygon. Archived from the original on August 12, 2020. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  37. ^ Chalk, Andy (January 10, 2019). "Return of the Obra Dinn claims six DICE Award nominations". PC Gamer. Archived from the original on January 10, 2021. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  38. ^ Trent, Logan (February 11, 2019). "Here Are Your 2019 SXSW Gaming Awards Finalists!". South by Southwest. Archived from the original on February 15, 2019. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  39. ^ Fogel, Stephanie (January 3, 2019). "'Return of the Obra Dinn' Leads IGF Awards Nominees". Variety. Archived from the original on January 5, 2019. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  40. ^ Gamasutra staff (March 20, 2019). "Return of the Obra Dinn takes Grand Prize at the 21st IGF Awards!". Gamasutra. Archived from the original on November 13, 2020. Retrieved March 20, 2019.
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External linksEdit