Rediscovering Mystery: How Return of the Obra Dinn’s aesthetic sends players back in time

by Tyler Araujo

Return of the Obra Dinn was the most fun I’ve had doing a “required reading” throughout my entire career as a student, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve returned to complete it since playing the portion I was able to complete before class. The game was released by independent game developer Lucas Pope in 2018, and went on to win Best Indie Game at the 2018 Titanium Awards. The game also received a well-deserved accolade for Best Art Direction at the 2018 game awards. In Return of the Obra Dinn, players are tasked with uncovering the mystery of a ship which came into port with all 60 people who set sail on it either dead or missing. Using a “Memento Mortem” which allows to view still scenes which preceded each crew member’s murder, your task is to explore the dense crime scenes past and discover exactly what became of every single person on the vessel.

Far and away, the thing that struck me, and struck most of us, about Obra Dinn was its 1-bit aesthetic. The trend of modern games emulating retro aesthetics is nothing new, but I think I know why the look of this particular game won us all over; a retro aesthetic implicitly compliments its design as a puzzle/mystery game. There is ambiguity inherent in low-poly or pixelated graphics, and games that take advantage of this(or are restricted by it) cause a player’s imagination to fill in the gaps, often to mysterious or unsettling effect. I am a huge fan of indie horror games, and while playing through Obra Dinn, I found myself reminded of two games in particular: Calm Time and Hide. Both of these games make use of this same ambiguity to elevate the horror within them. When I see a ghost’s face represented by a square of 16 pixels, or find myself being chased by an amorphous dark blob, they become the scariest things I want them to be. The mystery and fear it creates is also used to great effect in Obra Dinn. The ambiguity attached to retro aesthetics is also related to retro gaming as an era, and the limits placed on gamers by the technology of the time. In the days before widespread internet use and extensive walkthroughs, there were much fewer ways of obtaining reliable information about games. Official guides did not serve as walkthroughs, hints and tricks in gaming magazines like Electronic Gaming Monthly could be falsified, and it was much easier for general misinformation to spread. This simply doesn’t exist in modern gaming due to the prevalence of walkthroughs and wikis removing any true element of mystery from a game. Sure, players can opt out of using these resources, but the fact of the matter is that their sheer existence removes a significant amount of tension from modern gaming, especially in the mystery and puzzle genres; at the end of the day, if you can’t figure something out, you can just look it up. While it may appear to some to be a minor point, I think the graphical style of Obra Dinn being reminiscent of this era of true mystery in videogaming has a significant effect on the way players experience it. In a way, you somehow don’t believe that modern wikis will help you decode this archaic-looking game, and prefer to discover its secrets for yourself. Going wiki-free is, of course, the way you should play a game like Obra Dinn, and the way its graphics connect to and compliment the game’s intended style of play compliments the allure of its mystery. 

The act of playing Obra Dinn can best be described as an investigation, not just within the context of your character’s duty, but for the player as well. The 1-bit aesthetic combined with the game’s relatively low amount of detail places a fundamental limit on the amount of information you can obtain, and since you are focused on scouring the environment for clues, this limit is frustrating, extremely compelling, and occasionally deeply unsettling. Secrets hide behind blocky pixels and low-poly models. I think an excellent example of the game’s potential to instill fear can be seen in the design of the crew members’ eyes, which are cast in shadow and cannot be seen. Something as simple as this lack of eyes made each crew member and passenger seem oddly inhuman and frightening. The crew of the Obra Dinn is a fearsome and mysterious bunch. This fear of the unknown as it pertains to the crew is conveyed beautifully through the “group photo” that serves as a progress tracker. The photo of the Obra Dinn’s passengers is intimidating at first glance; the men aren’t all easy to see, and the picture itself is extremely grainy, reminiscent of what a real photo from the era might look like. The task of discovering specific information about so many people is daunting. There’s something inherently uneasy about looking at a photograph and not knowing who’s in it. As the player discovers the secrets of each crew member’s death, their appearance in the photo changes to be in greater relief, which symbolizes the player gaining more knowledge about them, but the gaining of this knowledge itself is the player’s goal, not revealing the photograph. This speaks to what makes retro aesthetics so inherently terrifying; the fear of the unknown. The fear of what your imagination turns those few dozen pixels into. Obra Dinn uses the player’s fear of the unknown to great effect in its gameplay, giving you the opportunity to dispel this fear by learning and cataloging as much information about each of these shadowy figures as possible. By the end of the game, every single man on the Obra Dinn will be given a name and cause of death. As a player, you want to complete this task because in knowing, you dispel your fear and become comfortable in this hostile environment. Meanwhile, your character wants to complete this task for reasons germane to the game’s story. Effectively, this achieves an exceedingly rare feat in gaming by aligning the player’s interests with the character’s interests. I thought this was a really nice, clear example of visual design complimenting genre. 

Obra Dinn also affected an impression of mystery on me and developed a deeper connection between myself and the gameplay through the investigation mechanic, and its dense “scenes”. Upon finding a corpse, the player can go back in time for an audiovisual snapshot of the crew member’s last moments, and search for clues about the person’s identity and cause of death. These scenes are never as simple as the murderer and victim. Almost every one requires exploration to find another crew member moving around somewhere outside the scene, who players have to find in order to understand future scenes. Once I realized this, the game went from a glorified hidden object game into a full-on investigative adventure. Moving about the stills in 3D and uncovering their secrets is what makes this gameplay for me; it justifies the mechanic of going back in time more thoroughly than a static hunt for hidden objects would, and requires the player to establish a timeline of the story in their own heads in order to keep crew members’ identities and movements straight between scenes. The game does not spoonfeed you any information via triggered cutscenes, nor does it notify you when you’ve discovered something. Removing these mechanics not only establishes a deeper feeling of mystery by not leading the player by the hand toward their goal with a series of cathartic progression indicators, it also immerses the player in the game by requiring more of them. You, the player, are the one who reveals information to yourself, and you come to all conclusions independently. The game’s mystery is the obstacle, and you need to be the solution, because the Obra Dinn is not giving up its secrets through flashy cinematics that essentially let you take your hands off the keyboard. Anything piece of information you obtain is wrestled away through your own wit rather than given to you, and this is far and away the game’s greatest design strength.

In summary, Return of the Obra Dinn is a perfect reinvention and recapturing of the mystery genre. The aesthetic and unique gameplay are perfectly in tune with the game’s genre and desired effect on the player, and the player experience is truly in a league of its own. Obra Dinn shows the potential for reinvigoration of genre through precisely calculated principles of design.

One thought on “Rediscovering Mystery: How Return of the Obra Dinn’s aesthetic sends players back in time

  1. Murray Lorden June 27, 2020 / 7:57 pm

    This is near the top of my to-play-list as research for my own game. I find Lucas Pope’s interviews wonderful, and he comes from a place of inspiration I can really get on board with (Thief: The Dark Project and Thief 2 are among his favorite games of all time). 🙂


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