Return of the Obra Dinn
|Return of the Obra Dinn|
|Platform(s)||macOS, Microsoft Windows|
|Release||October 18, 2018|
The game is set aboard a fictional East India Company ghost ship whose crew and passengers have all mysteriously died, with the game's objective being to discover how. The player, as an agent of the shipping company assessing what happened, uses a combination of deductive reasoning and the use of a Memento Mortem stopwatch to return to the moment of a crew member's death to determine the identity of each of the sixty crew members, how and where they died and, if killed by human hands, the name of their killer. The game, played from the first-person view, uses a 1-bit monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh systems.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, the player takes the role of an insurance adjuster for the London office East India Company in 1807. The Obra Dinn, insured by the East India Company, had previously gone missing in 1802 as it was to sail around the Cape of Good Hope, but since washed up in port with none of its sixty-man crew alive. The player is tasked to determine the fate of all of the crew members, including their names, where and how they met their fate, and if they were killed, and who their killer was.
The game is played out from a first-person view, allowing the player to explore the Obra Dinn, using a monochromatic dithering style that mimics approaches that games on early home computers like the Macintosh had used to simulate shading and color. To help complete the task, the player is given a log book that includes a drawing of all the crew members, the crew roster, and layouts of the ship. They are also given the "Memento Mortem", a pocket watch-like device that activates when the player encounters one of the corpses on the ship. The Memento Mortem plays back the audio of the moments before the person's death, and then gives the player a few moments to explore the area around the frozen moment of death to identify who was present and other visual details. Once players have seen each moment, the log book automatically fills in some of the details of that event (such as the location, the visual identity of the crew members present at the event, and the dialog heard in the moments before death), allowing the player to cross reference this information with other information already learned. In some cases, the Memento Mortem will react following this process to reveal another related death, guiding the player to where that corpse lays before repeating the investigation process. Certain sections of the ship are not available until the player has observed all the death moments in a certain area. The player can review these memories at any time to observe any new clues they might have missed following later investigation.
Ultimately, Return of the Obra Dinn is a large logic puzzle requiring the player to use deductive reasoning to determine the fate of each crew member. The game does not provide explicit clues for how each crew member died or towards their identity, requiring the player to make guesses. The player can refine their guesses as they gain more information; the game is only over once the player has correctly identified the names and fates. When a player has properly established the names and reasons for death for any three, the game affirms this information to the player, locking those changes and effectively reducing the complexity of the puzzle.
When the Obra Dinn returns to its England port six years after going missing, the East India Company sends an insurance adjuster to determine what happened aboard the ship. Through the Memento Mortem and other clues, the adjuster works out the sequence of events since 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, which they claim help to repel dangers from the ocean. 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, mermaids attacked the boats and killed several of the group. The mermaid's attack was quelled when a Formosan pulled a shell out of the chest, repelling the mermaids, but not before he was killed. The remaining crew returned to the Obra Dinn, along with the bodies of mermaids they captured and shells that they held. As they were brought aboard, the mermaids came to life, attacking and killing 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 number of tragedies, but in the midst of their return, a terrible storm struck, and crab-like creatures boarded the ship with the intent to reach the lazarette, killing more of the crew. Even after dispelling that assault, the ship was attacked by a kraken, killing more crewmen and the captain's wife. The captain killed two of the three mermaids in hopes to end the attack, took their shells and threw them overboard. Soon the kraken retreated, leaving only a skeleton crew on the ship. The surviving passengers and some of the crew decided to abandon the Obra Dinn and set off for the western coast of Africa, but not before negotiating with the surviving mermaid to help bring the Obra Dinn back to port in exchange with returning her shell and her freedom. The ship's surgeon, knowing that the East India Company will investigate the ship via the Memento Mortem, purposely killed a monkey in the lazarette and kept its paw before he left with the others. The surviving crew turned on the captain, wanting to reclaim the chest and shells for all their hardships, but he had long since threw them overboard. He killed the remaining crew, and then by his wife's body, committed suicide.
The insurance adjuster learns of all but the bargain from exploring the ship. On return to land, they mail the completed book to the specified address. A year later, the book is mailed back along with the monkey's paw, through which they use the Memento Mortem to 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 of the early Macintosh games. Following Papers, Please, Pope had wanted to make a game that used the 1-bit aesthetic as a new experimental game, leading him to develop a game engine that allowed the player to move about in a 3D space but all rendered in this style all within the Unity engine. With the style down, he then worked backwards to determine what game to make from this. His initial idea was where the player character repeatedly died; the player would see the events of the death from their corpse, and then would be transported back one minute before their death to manipulate the environment and others as to recreate that death. However, Pope found this technically challenging, but sparked the idea of using freeze-frame flashbacks to moments of death and using that approach and mechanic to tell a story. This led to the narrative of the Obra Dinn, but leaving a storytelling challenge of explaining all of the deaths and disappearances of the crewmembers through these moments of death. This subsequently led to the idea of the log book the player would carry, tracking the names of the crew in the same manner that the real East India Company had used.
The narrative aspect took the longest part of the development period. Pope had teased Return of the Obra Dinn in 2014 while completing Papers, Please, anticipating a release that year or the next. Instead, coming up with the narrative and gameplay elements around that took about two more years of work, requiring him to learn some of the tricks involved with the Maya language. Pope originally released a free, limited demo for the 2016 Game Developers Conference, which only had six characters for the player to deduce, but otherwise all the other mechanics in place. In this situation, the deaths the player discovered all occurred in chronological order as they discovered them. Feedback from this was positive, so he began to expand the game's story, knowing that he had to make sure enough information was conveyed in the brief moments of time around the point of death. Internally he created his own spreadsheets to link all the various characters and their fates together, as well as making sure that players would be able to follow chains of deaths for discovering the deaths of certain characters. This ended with him creating the necessary dialog elements for the various scenes, and hiring voice actors to read them, provided by locals Pope auditioned that could mimic the accents of the time period.
With the more complete story worked out, Pope created a new demo to take to the PAX Australia event in November 2016, which added thirteen additional characters to the original demo. However, unlike the first demo, the deaths here were presenting out of chronological order, and players were confused about how to progress. Pope recognized this confusion would become worse with the full cast of characters he had planned. He found a solution by having ten events in the narrative serve as a catalyst for a certain number of deaths, breaking out the story into these ten sections and allowing the story and the information to be more digestible to the player. This then led more to the development of the logbook mechanic, since the order of the deaths in its pages effectively served as the timeline for the game. Now with the logbook serving as a key mechanic of the game, Pope set out to making the book as easy to use without the need for in-game tutorials and making controls work well for both consoles and personal computers.
Pope stated he was not worried about how well Return of the Obra Dinn performed as he was still earning appreciable revenue from Papers, Please; he considered the game something he wanted to make and hope that people enjoy it, and thus did not pressure himself with any deadlines or marketing aspects for the title.
Return of the Obra Dinn received positive reviews upon its release, with the game receiving a weighted average rating of 89 out of 100 from review aggregator Metacritic, based on 23 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". User reviews on the game's Steam page are "Overwhelmingly Positive" with 922 positive reviews and only 16 negative reviews. 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."
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- "Return of the Obra Dinn". Steam. Retrieved 8 November 2018.
- Campbell, Colin (October 19, 2018). "Return of the Obra Dinn is a superb murder mystery game". Polygon. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
- Webster, Andrew (October 18, 2018). "The grisly mystery of Return of the Obra Dinn will make you obsessed". The Verge. Retrieved October 19, 2018.
- Crecente, Brian (November 13, 2018). "'God of War,' 'Red Dead Redemption II' Tie For Most Game Awards Noms". Variety. Retrieved November 13, 2018.