Been Meaning to Play: Return of the Obra Dinn

by: Randy -
More On: Return of the Obra Dinn

Ignoring the light dusting I was giving myself, I scoured my bookshelves for nautical fiction. Nothing hooked me. It’s tough for me to reread novels. I’m more of a one-and-done kinda guy when it comes to, you know, reading. All of which makes me question the purpose of maintaining a home library in the first place. Why keep something around if you’ll never use it again for the rest of your life? I’d already read the nautical fiction I wanted to read. And the ones I didn’t want to read were going to have to sit there awhile longer. Sorry, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. My bad, Master and Commander. Maybe next time, Surrender of a Siren, Book #2 of The Wanton Dairymaid Trilogy.

Screenshots of a game from last year were driving me toward nautical fiction, I finally figured out. A developer named Lucas Pope, who’d also made a game called Papers, Please, worked for years on an old school-looking project called Return of the Obra Dinn. Released in the fourth quarter of 2018 amid tentpole releases like Marvel’s Spider-Man, Fallout 76, and Red Dead Redemption 2, Return of the Obra Dinn still elbowed its way onto a surprising number of top-10 charts. It didn’t necessarily dominate the discussion on the podcasts I listen to, but it was hard to find folks that weren't discussing it.

Despite its prevalence, I hesitated. Critics squealed with glee at having a pen and pad handy while playing Obra Dinn. The last time I’d heard that touted as a benefit to good gameplay was Jonathan Blow’s The Witness. I played some of The Witness. Let’s just say that puzzles for puzzles’ sake ain’t my cup of English Breakfast. I was hearing enthusiasm from critics creating their own red-thread-serial-killer corkboard. I was hearing them spill over with excitement at taking pages and pages of handwritten notes in composition books. All of this just to parse a 19th century shipboard mystery? I thought people made video games so I finally wouldn’t have to deal with books anymore. I wasn’t interested in Obra Dinn.

Until this past week. My library wasn’t cutting it. And, again, I wasn't going to read Moby-Dick again. Also, with’s penchant for giving Clive Cussler and Danielle Steele the same four-out-of-five-star ratings as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf, I wasn’t going to trust aggregate customer reviews to pick out my next literary experience either.

Those grainy 1-bit Macintosh screenshots of Obra Dinn were shouting my name. Their high-contrast line-drawing style front-loaded my preconceptions. Not necessarily with a childhood nostalgia for old video games, but as an appeal to crafting a new video game in the style of an old video game. Like, for instance, when Patrick O’Brian sat in a 20th century chair at a 20th century desk to write Master and Commander’s nautical fiction taking place 150 years prior. Or when Susanna Clarke broke out a word processor on a personal computer in order to write a story taking place during the Napoleonic Wars—an era whose most prominent technological advancement was gas lighting. The 8-bit and 16-bit renaissance has been working its magic for a decade now. But Obra Dinn was different, you could already tell.

I see Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn, done up in the aesthetic of early Macintosh computer graphics, as a conflation of the 1970s with the 1790s. Pope’s art style is so convincing it makes the microcomputer revolution of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter presidencies seem like it could’ve taken place during George Washington and John Adams’s time in the Oval Office. In other words, Obra Dinn’s look and feel, while composed on a thoroughly modern graphical engine, feels like it was whittled with a pocket knife from a piece of driftwood during the Revolutionary War.

Enough timeline stuff. Obra Dinn just looked rad. While I’d hesitated through 2018 to pull the trigger on a purchase, my 2019 New Year’s Gaming Resolution—“Screw it, I’m getting it”—meant that I could finally say, “Screw it, I’m getting it.” So I did.

A punchy set of stringed instruments and percussion, intimate yet startling, greeted me, along with the radio-play voice over of the sea dog giving me a lift on a rowboat out to the three-masted Obra Dinn itself. The moon and stars were dark, and the rowboat captain kept his head down and to the side, seeing no need to make his face known in a game where I’d already have to put names to faces on 60 different people, now all dead, aboard the Obra Dinn.

I climbed the ladder to reach the main deck. The sense of place I felt was immediate. Weirdly palpable despite the deceptively simple graphics. This was the most solid ship I’d planted my boots on since Sea of Thieves. That’s saying something. I walked both fore and aft, noting the fairly intact sails, rigging, and deckwork. The Obra Dinn, returning after being inexplicably missing-in-action for a number of years, was back, looking none the worse for wear, apparently.

That would change. My investigation had only just begun. But as I set out, as an insurance claims adjuster (no, really, that’s your occupation in this game), the mystery that left a full 60-person complement of soldiers, sailors, and civilians dead would soon have the Obra Dinn breaking down, piece by piece, its tale of tragedy.

I grabbed my time-traveling pocket watch. I grabbed my note-hungry logbook. And I set about gaining my sea legs aboard the out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Obra Dinn. It was to become the biggest game of Clue I’d ever undertake. “Oh, you think it was Professor Plum with the candlestick in the Observatory? Excellent deduction. Now do that 59 more times.” Each and every soul aboard the Obra Dinn suffered some grizzly fate. And here I am, Mr. I Don’t Like Puzzles for Puzzles’ Sake, ready to solve some puzzles. Or at least adjust the heck out of some claims if this shipboard mystery calls for it. In the interest of not divulging story spoilers, I'll, uh, not divulge story spoilers. Suffice it to say, more than a couple times already, I've said to myself, "I can't believe I didn't see that coming."

If these bulkheads could talk, they’d have some stories to tell. And that’s exactly what I plan on making them do.