The Revolutionary Power of Clues in Return of the Obra Dinn

Group project video essay and summary blog post, created/written by co-leader Kellie Lu

Warning: contains spoilers.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a distillation of the mystery genre that manages to make a player a true detective while adding its own intimate flair. Unlike many detective games that give the player god-like powers or modes to highlight clues and select the correct choice from a pre-written plot, the player must investigate environments without hand-holding. And it does this well. Many players comment on the way that the game makes them feel empowered, and this is the key to which Obra Dinn revolutionizes the mystery game genre.

How does the game do this? Roger Caillois states that the pleasure of reading a mystery novel is “not that of listening to a story, but rather that of watching a “magic” trick which the magician immediately explains. The author has set everything up in advance. The story opens on a rigged set; we do not even see the main event, but only its disturbing consequences” (4).

This is what Obra Dinn does well: rather than a single scene set up with clues whose mystery is resolved immediately, the vignette format lets players see the same characters in different settings and contexts, allowing them to build theories and confidence. Game tools of multiple formats, like the passengers’ log and the sketches, allow players to track and cross-reference clues. The stage is set. The player’s job is to make the journey from impossible to possible through deductive guessing; the player decides what is impossible in order to guess what is possible in a manner similar to Sudoku.

This is how the game creates a procedural system where players discover what they are “allowed” by the game to use as a clue. (Hint: almost everything.) Language can be used as a clue; dress is a good indicator of status, and is consistent; in fact, the hammocks’ number tags are also clues; these people who walk together often are probably related in status; the person who stands at the head of the seamen is not necessarily a seaman.

Clues are resources. As players discover more types of clues, they unlock increasing arsenal of resources, like a player character in another game might unlock new weapons or tools. This becomes a core loop of gameplay: finding dead bodies unlocks more dead bodies; finding clues to determine fates reframes the realm of possibility for the rest of the characters, so that clues in this new frame can be used to determine the fates of more characters.

Ultimately, this clue system celebrates not the cleverness of a pre-written plot or of sets of mechanics, but of players—your own cleverness. The satisfaction of the game is not to roleplay as a godlike detective who has special access to clues, but to become a detective whose powers unfold and grow as you as a player construct your sets of clues. If this were where Return of the Obra Dinn finished exerting its powers, it would still be a technically inspiring game, and a revolution for the genre. But it goes beyond: its clues serve for more than the mechanical, explicitly game-driven benefit of finding more clues and completing fates.

Clues and searching for clues give insight into the relationships, emotions, and attitudes of characters aboard the ship, which drive players’ emotional investment. With the fate of the midshipmen, we learn that the three of them were young officers-in-training who all died heroic deaths. Charles Hershtik throws up when he sees blood in his first vignette and another midshipman teases him, but he eventually sacrifices his life to kill a crab-riding sea monster. As Thomas is dying, his mind goes to his fellow midshipman Peter’s fate—Thomas tried to save Peter from being grabbed by the Kraken, but the powder Peter held exploded and killed him. The premise of the game creates a compelling tragic genre: tragedy is about the how, and what was accomplished along the way. The midshipmen grew from teasing boys to young men who cared about the lives of the crewmen and of each other.

To solve fates through finding small clues of why/how characters died leads to finding more about their characters leads to the larger narrative of the chronological order of events in the Obra Dinn. Seeing different characters in different situations grows our intimate understandings of them and reinforces our desire to learn their fate by exploring more vignettes. Clues in Return of the Obra Dinn form a game loop that keeps players motivated to return to the game to understand its tragic story. Finally, once players complete the game, there is not much replay value if they have determined all the fates. Yet, the emotional power of the game make players want to return to the Obra Dinn, and that is the lasting power of a compelling mystery game: it is not just a revolution of genre, but also a revolutionary experience.

For examples with no spoilers, see this presentation.

See a separate post for more details about the mechanics of clues.

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