A topical post about a game that’s been out for almost a year! But I’ve got the desperate urge to play it again and despite how fucking excellent this game is, the replay value is basically nil and I’m sad about it. I’ve also got the desperate urge to make more people play it (there’s only one fic on AO3 and that’s a goddamn tragedy).
This is an amazing game for people who don’t play many games (I know because I am one of them) – and it’s one where watching an LP can’t really replicate the experience of piecing the story together for yourself. If you love The Terror and internet speculation on the cascading mistakes that led to the Franklin Expedition’s awful fate then buddy, have I got a game for you .
The Obra Dinn, an East Indiaman merchant ship thought lost at sea for five years, drifts into port with its sixty hands missing or dead. And only you can calculate the insurance payout!
And also use a magic stopwatch to view the final moment of every man and woman that died aboard, and piece together the story behind the horrors that took place during that last, doomed voyage.
The gameplay is simple; you have a crew roster and a book with a picture of each crewmember, asking you who they were and how they died. As you explore the ruined ship in the real world, whenever you find a body (and there are many), you catapult yourself back in time to hear a snippet of dialogue and see a freezeframe of the moment of their death, from misfortune, murder, or something less mundane. And from there it’s just a simple matter of using contextual clues – nationality, uniforms, friends – to identify each corpse. Sometimes it’s as easy as hearing a friend call them by name. Sometimes it’s as fiddly as tracking their position on the ship through the background of scenes they barely feature in and crossreferencing with your map of the ship.
The game’s one-bit graphics are a neat way to take the strain off a one-man development team, but they’re shockingly atmospheric, making it fell like you’re exploring a 19th-century woodcut. Meticulously researched and beautifully staged, some of the tableaus are so visually spectacular you won’t be combing them for clues so much as gaping in awe and horror. But as you acclimatise and set yourself to exploring, tracking individuals from memory to memory and piecing together the contextual clues that will let you work out who they were, you realise a shocking amount of detail has been included.
Although you’ll never see the characters outside of macabre freezeframes, you get a surprisingly vivid sense of them as people. You’ll watch inexperienced young crewmembers grow from puking at the sight of a butchering a cow to battling eldritch monstrosities. You’ll see courage and friendship and cowardice and roll your eyes at That One Fucking Guy up to his usual bullshit, of course he Did That.
Your role on the ship is only to make a dry accounting for the purposes of an insurance payout, and you can solve every fate without even trying to fit the scenes together into the bigger picture. The game doesn’t spell things out, and it’s hard not to feel smart as hell for piecing together the narrative of the ill-fated voyage.
If I have a criticism, it’s of the game’s final chapter – final as in you can only see it when you’ve completed the rest of the game. The way you finally access it is clever as hell – mild spoiler: the ship’s surgeon, who knows how the watch works, throws his pet monkey into an inaccessible part of the ship with a rope tied around it, kills it and yanks it back, then sends you its paw – but while it answers questions, your understanding of the story you’ve just pieced together isn’t turned on its head as you might expect from all that buildup. You play through it going ‘oh, okay, neat. That figures’. (Also, I wish there was a way to fast-travel between memories instead of having to run to them every time.)
But, ‘the ending was completely in keeping with what had gone before’ is a small blot on an incredible game, and I’d really recommend that you give Return of the Obra Dinn a try (if you haven’t already, it won like a billion awards and Game of the Year nominations, it’s not exactly obscure). I doubt there’s going to be a sequel from developer Lucas Pope – his games are hugely innovative (just look at the Obra Dinn devlog) and I expect his next project will be something with entirely new mechanics – but good god I want a billion games in this style. At the very least, play this one and then talk to me about it!