Return of the Obra Dinn

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Return of the Obra Dinn
Return of the Obra Dinn logo-title.jpg
Developer(s)Lucas Pope
Designer(s)Lucas Pope
Artist(s)Lucas Pope
  • macOS, Windows
  • October 18, 2018
  • Switch, PS4, Xbox One
  • October 18, 2019

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.[1] The player is tasked to determine 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]

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

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.[3] 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.[3]


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, 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. 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 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 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.[1] 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.[4]

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. 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.[5] 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][5]

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.[5] 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.[1][5] 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.[5]

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.[6][7] Physical Editions were released through Limited Run Games for the PS4 and Nintendo Switch in 2020.[8]


Aggregate score
MetacriticPC: 89/100[9]
NS: 86/100[10]
Review scores
Game Informer8.75/10[13]
PC Gamer (US)90/100[16]
PC World4.5/5 stars[17]

Return of the Obra Dinn received "generally favorable reviews", according to review aggregator Metacritic.[9] 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."[18]

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.[18][19]

Several video game publications named Return of the Obra Dinn among 2018's best games,[20] including Edge,[21] Polygon,[22] USGamer,[23] GameSpot,[24] The Nerdist,[25] The Daily Telegraph,[26] The New Yorker,[27] and The Escapist.[28]

Year Award Category Result Ref
2018 The Game Awards Best Independent Game Nominated [29][30]
Best Art Direction Won
Titanium Awards Game of the Year Nominated [31][32]
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 [33]
22nd Annual D.I.C.E. Awards Game of the Year Nominated [34]
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 [35]
SXSW Gaming Awards Excellence in Art Nominated [36]
Excellence in Design Nominated
Independent Games Festival Awards Seumas McNally Grand Prize Won [37][38]
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 [39][40]
Best Narrative Won
Best Visual Art Nominated
Innovation Award Nominated
15th British Academy Games Awards Best Game Nominated [41][42]
Artistic Achievement Won
Game Design Won
Game Innovation Nominated
Narrative Nominated
Original Property Nominated
Italian Video Game Awards Best Art Direction Nominated [43]
Best Indie Game Nominated


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Wood, Austin (November 2, 2017). "Lucas Pope on life after Papers, Please". Eurogamer. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  2. ^ "Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope details his next game". pcgamer. Retrieved November 24, 2017.
  3. ^ a b Kohler, Chris (October 18, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn: The Kotaku Review". Kotaku. Retrieved October 18, 2018.
  4. ^ Wright, Steven (January 23, 2019). "Lucas Pope on the challenge of creating Obra Dinn's 1-bit aesthetic". PC Gamer. Retrieved January 23, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d e Wiltshire, Alex (November 7, 2018). "How a book binds the Return of the Obra Dinn". Rock Paper Shotgun. Retrieved November 7, 2018.
  6. ^ Wales, Matt (September 4, 2019). "Papers, Please dev's marvellous nautical mystery Obra Dinn coming to consoles". Eurogamer. Retrieved September 4, 2019.
  7. ^ "Return of the Obra Dinn for PS4, Xbox One, and Switch launches October 18". Gematsu. Retrieved October 2, 2019.
  8. ^ "Return of the Obra Dinn will get a physical run on PS4 and Switch this Friday". Limited Run Games. Retrieved July 29, 2020.
  9. ^ a b "Return of the Obra Dinn for PC Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved November 3, 2018.
  10. ^ "Return of the Obra Dinn for Swittch Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved April 13, 2020.
  11. ^ Hancock, Patrick (October 18, 2018). "Review: Return of the Obra Dinn". Destructoid. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  12. ^ Donlan, Christian (October 18, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn review - prepare to be transported". Eurogamer. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  13. ^ Gwaltney, Javy (October 18, 2018). "Return Of The Obra Dinn". Game Informer. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  14. ^ Wildgoose, David (October 22, 2018). "Return Of The Obra Dinn Review - The Good Ship". GameSpot. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  15. ^ Marks, Tom (October 22, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn Review". IGN. Retrieved October 22, 2018.
  16. ^ Kelly, Andy (October 19, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn Review". PC Gamer. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  17. ^ Dingman, Hayden (October 18, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn review: A phenomenal detective story invoking old Macintosh adventures". PC World. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  18. ^ a b Campbell, Colin (October 19, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn is a superb murder mystery game". Polygon. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  19. ^ Webster, Andrew (October 18, 2018). "The grisly mystery of Return of the Obra Dinn will make you obsessed". The Verge. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
  20. ^ Hudson, Laura (December 21, 2018). "Why Return of the Obra Dinn is my game of the year". The Verge. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  21. ^ "The Edge Awards". Edge. Future (328): 72–91. February 2019.
  22. ^ Polygon staff (December 21, 2018). "GOTY 2018: #2 Return of the Obra Dinn". Polygon. Retrieved January 8, 2018.
  23. ^ USgamer staff (December 24, 2018). "USG's Top 20 Games of 2018". USgamer. Retrieved December 25, 2018.
  24. ^ Espineli, Matt (December 19, 2018). "Game Of The Year: 2018's 10 Best Games". GameSpot. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  25. ^ "The 10 Best Video Games Of 2018". The Nerdist. December 17, 2018. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  26. ^ Hoggins, Tom (December 21, 2018). "The 50 best games of 2018 | Our guide to the top titles of the year". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  27. ^ Parkin, Simon (November 28, 2018). "The Best Video Games of 2018". - The New Yorker. Retrieved January 11, 2019.
  28. ^ Croshaw, Ben "Yahtzee" (January 2, 2019). "2018's Best Worst and Blandest". The Escapist. Retrieved January 2, 2019.
  29. ^ Crecente, Brian (November 13, 2018). "'God of War,' 'Red Dead Redemption II' Tie For Most Game Awards Noms". Variety. Retrieved November 13, 2018.
  30. ^ Grant, Christopher (December 6, 2018). "The Game Awards 2018: Here are all the winners". Polygon. Retrieved December 7, 2018.
  31. ^ "Titanium Awards 2018". Fun & Serious Game Festival. Archived from the original on July 7, 2019. Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  32. ^ Handrahan, Matthew (December 10, 2018). "Red Dead Redemption 2 wins Best Game at Fun & Serious Festival Awards". Retrieved November 6, 2019.
  33. ^ Keyes, Rob (January 3, 2019). "2018 New York Game Awards Nominees Revealed". Screen Rant. Retrieved January 7, 2019.
  34. ^ Chalk, Andy (January 10, 2019). "Return of the Obra Dinn claims six DICE Award nominations". PC Gamer. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  35. ^ "Nominee List for 2018". National Academy of Video Game Trade Reviewers. February 11, 2019. Retrieved February 12, 2019.
  36. ^ Trent, Logan (February 11, 2019). "Here Are Your 2019 SXSW Gaming Awards Finalists!". South by Southwest. Retrieved February 14, 2019.
  37. ^ Fogel, Stephanie (January 3, 2019). "'Return of the Obra Dinn' Leads IGF Awards Nominees". Variety. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  38. ^ Gamasutra staff (March 20, 2019). "Return of the Obra Dinn takes Grand Prize at the 21st IGF Awards!". Gamasutra. Retrieved March 20, 2019.
  39. ^ "Red Dead Redemption 2 leads list of GDC 2019 Choice Awards nominees!". Gamasutra. January 4, 2019. Retrieved January 4, 2019.
  40. ^ Williams, Mike (March 20, 2019). "God of War Wins Another GOTY at 2019 Game Developers Choice Awards". USGamer. Retrieved March 20, 2019.
  41. ^ "BAFTA Games Awards nominations 2019". BAFTA. March 14, 2019. Retrieved March 14, 2019.
  42. ^ Fox, Chris; Kleinman, Zoe (April 4, 2019). "God of War wins best game at Bafta Awards". BBC. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
  43. ^ "Italian Video Game Awards Nominees and Winners". Italian Video Game Awards. April 11, 2019. Retrieved May 24, 2019.

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