Return of the Obra Dinn
|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 is played as an insurance inspector for the East India Company in 1807. The fictional Obra Dinn, a ghost ship missing for five years, has suddenly reappeared with all hands missing or dead. The player is sent to board the ship and perform an appraisal, identifying all sixty crew members, determining their causes of death, and when applicable, naming their killer. This is accomplished through the use of a "Memento Mortem", a stopwatch that transports the user to a corpse's moment of death. 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, winning several awards.
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. The player is tasked to determine the fate of all souls on board, including their names, where and how they met their death, who their killer was, and their location should they be alive.
The game is played in first-person, allowing the player to fully explore the Obra Dinn, using a monochromatic dithering style to mimic the shading & color methods of early computer games. 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 pocket watch-like device that can be used on a corpse. When activated, the player will hear the seconds before the 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 in the scene. These are used to help connect the faces of crew mates 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.
With each death, the logbook automatically fills in basic information. The player is tasked only with naming those present & 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, "fates" are only validated in correct sets of three.
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 most hands dead. The East India Company sends their Chief Inspector to determine what happened aboard the ship. The inspector has received from Henry Evans - the ship's surgeon, and near-only survivor - the ship's 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. 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 captured mermaids and their shells, but he is 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 with the intent of reaching the lazarette to liberate the mermaids, killing 9 more of the crew before being put down. Shortly after dispelling the first assault, the ship was attacked by a kraken, killing 15 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 3 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 the estates of lost crewmen. A year later, the book is mailed 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.
Over the course of his career, Lucas Pope had developed an appreciation of 1-bit graphics used in many early Macintosh games. Following 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 3D space, rendered in a vintage style. Pope faced preliminary issues at this stage. He 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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 ten sections and allowing the plot to be more digestible to the player. Dividing the game into "chapters" then led to the creation of the logbook, serving as the timeline for the game & cataloguing the ship's crew in the same manner as the real East India Company.
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. 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. Physical Editions were released through Limited Run Games for the PS4 and Nintendo Switch in 2020.
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 publications named Return of the Obra Dinn among 2018'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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