Return of the Obra Dinn Commentary and Critique

The slow march of my video series on detective games continues with this, its fifth entry. For awhile I was afraid there was no reason to do this one, as I wouldn’t be able to top my students’ posts and videos on this game after I taught it last spring. In the end, I went with sheer length as my own particular angle.

Script below the jump.

Hello everyone. Ian here. Welcome to the fifth video in a series I’ve been doing on detective stories in games. This is a standalone video—you don’t have to have watched the first four to understand this one. (Although if you have watched them, they will provide a little bit of extra context.)

In the previous video in this series, I mentioned the large number of detective and investigation-related games that have come out over the past decade, and the especially dramatic increase in the past, say, five years or so. The gameplay in some of these games is dialogue-based, catching lies and contradictions in witness testimony. Other games rely on the same sort of point-and-click item-hunting that has provided the spine of traditional adventure games for decades. Many are a mix. I said in the  previous video that I find HER STORY (from 2015) and Return of the Obra Dinn (from 2018) to be the most mechanically satisfying investigation games to come out in the past half-decade. If you’re interested in my thoughts on HER STORY, you should check out that video. In this video, I’ll be looking at Obra Dinn.

And in this video I’ll be doing a commentary on every single scene and every single solution in Obra Dinn. It’s a very thorough video, much more akin to the full-playthrough analyses I did of Virginia and Half-Life 2 than any of the previous videos in this detective games series. I think it’s worth putting in the time to solve every fate in this game, to best talk about its strengths and weaknesses. That means that this video will be fairly long. It’s not unedited: I’ve trimmed out the most repetitive bits involved in my playthrough. But there’s still a lot of material—and it also means that of course it will be full of spoilers. Please do not watch this video if you do not want the game to be spoiled. We’re going to look at everything. 

In fact, more than any other video I’ve made, you could genuinely use this video as a guide if you’re stuck on any of the identities or fates. The table of contents I’ve put below should help facilitate this.

Obra Dinn’s opening explains its unusual premise as efficiently as possible. The Obra Dinn is a ship that was considered lost. It has reappeared quite unexpectedly, adrift at sea off the coast of Falmouth as a completely unmanned ghost ship. You are an insurance adjuster for the East India trading company. Your job is to discover what happened to the ship, its crew, and its passengers. The company also wants you to assess what happened to the cargo, but that doesn’t really tie into the game mechanics. Instead, when playing the game, the fates of the people on the crew are your main concern, as a way of discovering how much in back wages need to be paid to whose estates.

There were 60 people onboard the Obra Dinn, including all crew and passengers—61, actually, if you include an unidentified stowaway who died before they were ever discovered. Most of these people died over the course of the ship’s voyage, but not everyone. A few escaped. You’re not solving a series of “murders,” you are solving “fates,” which includes successful escapes from the ship alongside deaths, which themselves can be broken up into the murderous, the accidental, and the supernatural.

When you first climb aboard this ship, though, you seem to have no means of solving anything. This moment is very strange. I’m not sure why the game gives you these seconds to explore the main deck of the ship before handing you its primary mechanic. And what’s weirder is that the amount of time varies—I’ve captured this opening several times, and this time it’s 48 seconds, although other times it’s been as low as 18 second! Slows things down for no discernable reason. I like that I have time here to point out that this door is locked—that will be important later. 

OK, now we have a book, which is going to be crucial for our investigation. It’s been left to us by one Henry Evans, who is currently living in Morocco, and this detail is also going to be important later.

The book explains the working of a pocketwatch, the Memento Mortem. This is the magical watch that gameplay in Return of the Obra Dinn is based off of. When pointed in the direction of a corpse, it will enable us to witness the last moment in that person’s death. That witnessing takes the form of visual tableau frozen in time, which we can explore freely within certain spatial bounds, and also a few seconds of sound, which can often be crucial in providing context. The sound design and voice acting in this game is all uniformly excellent, by the way. There’s only seventeen minutes of recorded sound in total, if you line it up back to back, but they’re seventeen amazing minutes.

Before we start using the memento mortem, I want to offer some general praise of how it works. Even though this watch gives us a magical ability to aid us in our investigations, it does not give us the sort of abilities we may be conditioned to expect from other detective games. In the first episode of this series I catalogued some of the many, many magical technologies detective games hand players to highlight clues and help them make sense of the crime scene. We have impossibly smart smartphones, AR goggles, bat-computer cowls … sometimes this sort of clue-highlighting is explained strictly in terms of character knowledge and intuition, as is the case in Frogwares’ Sherlock Holmes games and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, but usually it’s handwaved away as magical crime-solving, clue-cataloguing technology. It is the preeminent crutch in detective games, and it is not present in Obra Dinn. It’s one of the reasons I admire this game so much. Your watch gives you exactly one magic ability: to step into the moment of a person’s death, frozen in time. There are also some shortcuts you can use to help you take notes on people’s identity, which we will be talking about extensively. But Obra Dinn is mercifully free of vision modes and object highlighting. It’s not the sort of game that’s going to place a flashing sign over things to let you know they’re important. It expects you to listen, paying close attention to dialogue and even accents, and it expects you to look, actually honing in on environmental details and drawing conclusions from them. 

It feels a little weird to call Obra Dinn a triumph of environmental storytelling, since over the years that term has become so synonymous with environmental art, and Obra Dinn’s tableaus are populated by so many characters, and their placement and actions and gestures are all hugely important. But it’s certainly a triumph of something, call it what you will—perhaps exploratory audiovisual storytelling? Obra Dinn utterly rejects the handholding of vision modes, and forces its players to git gud at observing virtual environments and drawing their own conclusions. Even more traditional point-and-click style adventure games have the problem of hotspots, where the fact that an object is clickable clues you into its importance, and shapes your perception of an environment—not as much as a vision mode in a 3D game, perhaps, but still some. In Obra Dinn, determining the importance of details is placed entirely on players. 

With the exception of the tools the game provides for taking notes on character identity, it’s possible to conceive of Obra Dinn not existing as a videogame at all, but instead taking the form of a series of dioramas, or panoramas, or stages in a theme park ride, or one of those other delightful pre-digital computer immersive virtual environments. (Now, admittedly those ID-ing tools are pretty crucial from a gameplay perspective, which we’ll get into, but it’s a fun thought experiment, to imagine a version of this game that’s not only set in the 19th century, but actually came out in the 19th century.)

Okay, now, let’s use our watch. You always hear the sound of the scene first, accompanied by intertitles for all of the dialogue. These intertitles double as subtitles when someone’s speaking a language other than English. Bang! This man has just shot someone. In the neck. As you can see, we’re in a frozen tableau. The edges of the scene fade away, letting us know the spatial constraints on how much we can explore.    

We won’t be able to fill out the details of the fate until the book comes up, and we won’t be able to bring up the book until this music plays out. Each time you view a fate the first time, Pope makes you wait through about 60 seconds of music before you get the opportunity to put in the details of the fate. We sit, and wait, and eventually an iris effect closes down the scene and we’re thrown into the book. I didn’t mind this feature the first time I played the game, but I began to hate it as I re-played it. It slows gameplay down for no real discernable reason. I really like certain elements of the UI and UX in this game, but I also think there are a few stumbles, and this is one of them. I’ll be cutting out these sections from future fates, both to streamline this video, and to keep me from complaining too much about a game I do genuinely love.

Okay, now we’ve set up the chapter for this fate, called “The End,” and we’ll be able to fill out some details in it. So let’s get investigating, for real. If you zoom in on a character model, it will isolate them from the environment and show you their picture in one of the illustrations included in the book. Bringing up the book at that moment brings you right to the illustration, and you can identify them from here. The game explains to us that a person’s picture being in-focus means they can now be identified. It warns us that determining everyone’s identity and fate will not be easy, that decisive information is rare, and that we’ll have to make assumptions using partial information. Some identities may only be revealed through a process of elimination.

But we have training wheels on for this section, and this man is not one of the difficult identities. The man banging on the door calls out for the captain, and then this man bursts out of the captain’s cabin. It’s looking like this is Captain Robert Witterel. 

If we look at the man who was killed in this scene, the UI behaves differently. His face is not in-focus in the illustration, and the game explains what that means: the blurring indicates we don’t yet have sufficient information to determine his identity. But we can still enter his fate. The game warns us that trying to guess people’s names while their faces are blurred would be unproductive, which is a nice touch: it’s warning us away from wasting our time.

For now, let’s put in this guy’s fate. Shot in the neck … with a gun … by Captain Witterel.

Okay, that’s it for this scene. We can exit through the door here.

We’re thrown back on the main deck in the present-day, and now this door is open. It was locked before, hence the “X” on its keyhole. But it was open in the memory, and so it’s open now—that’s how doors work in this game. And you’ll notice that as soon as we look up, we see it. Which is nice. Tells us where to go.

There’s two corpses in the captains quarters, and theoretically you can do them in any order, but there’s another locked door here, to the inner quarters, and it won’t unlock until we view this corpse. I’m going to start with the other one first, to keep things in chronological order.

Not much to view in this scene, but we do see a knife in the hands of Captain Witterel. The man he’s attacking is out-of-focus, so can’t be identified yet, but we can put in a fate: knifed by Captain Witterel. That’s it for this fate, for now.

See, these are getting much faster with editing. And they’re only going to continue getting faster!

A clubbing this time, again by Captain Witterel, and again of an out-of-focus, currently-unidentifiable man. 

Before we leave this simple scene, I want to point out that the door to the inner portion of the captain’s quarters is open in this scene, and in this scene alone out of the ones we’ve viewed so far. That will be important for accessing our next corpse!

And in our time … that door is open now. Just as before.

There are two corpses in this small room, which again theoretically we could do in any order, but I’m going to start with this one to finish out the chapter “The End.”

In this fate scene, we see Captain Witterel shoot himself. It is unambiguous. We now have our first full fate—identity, plus cause of death. And it’s here that the game explains that fates are only verified in sets of three. This prevents players from making wild guesses and happening upon the correct fates without having seen everything. And it also means that the mechanics of the game can be described as a hybrid between Clue and Sudoku.

With that explained, we might be tempted to move on, but there are other crucial details in this scene. Before he pulls the trigger, we can hear Captain Witterel talking to someone named “Abigail.” He seems to be speaking to this woman in his bed, who’s already dead. There’s only one Abigail on the matnifest, Abigail Hoscut Witterel, passenger. And if the name wasn’t enough, the fact that she’s here in the inner captain’s quarters strongly suggests that this woman is Captain Witterel’s wife.

But that’s not all. When he’s speaking to Abigail’s dead body, the captain also apologizes for shooting her brother. Abigail’s name is, again, Abigail Hoscut Witterel, so maybe there’s a clue in here—maybe she transformed her maiden name into her middle name. Any other Hoscuts on this ship?

Why yes, in fact: first mate William Hoscut, a good candidate for the captain’s friend. And although Captain Witterel has killed three people in quick succession in the past three scenes, the only person he shot was this man. So let’s go back to The End part 1 and—oh, look, he’s in focus now! William Hoscut, first mate.

Now, it’s time to look at Abigail’s body. So far, the deaths involved have been human affairs, motivated by mutiny. This fate scene presents an abrupt change, cuing us in to the true scope of the game’s fates.

Yes, this is a kraken attack. And wonderfully staged, with some nice verticality that will be a hallmark of some of the game’s best staging.

Okay, so Abigail Hoscut Witterel … was crushed … by collapsing rigging.

And there it is! Our first musical fanfare announcing we’ve gotten three fates correct. It’s timed to give us feedback right here at the conjuncture on The End chapter and The Doom chapter, as one more bit of tutorialization.

But before we leave The Doom part 8, I want to do a bit more identifying.  

In her dialogue, Abigail calls out to someone named “Martin.”

And then Martin responds, saying “come here.” Sounds like he’s trying to guide her to safety. Who’s our best candidate for this Martin fellow? I would say this man, right next to Abigail in the scene. So let’e pencil in the only Martin on the ship, Martin Perrott, third mate.

Now I want to pull your attention to these two women in the corner near the captain’s cabin. Both of them are now marked as in-focus, which should mean that we have sufficient information to determine their identity. If we try to do so, though, we get a warning, and the game introduces the pip system for deduction ratings. Three pips mean a difficult person to ID.

But why are they in focus, at all? Maybe because at this point, we can at least narrow them down to two people. There are only three women with English names on the ship. We’ve eliminated Abigail Hoscut Witterel, so that leaves Emily Jackson and Miss Jane Bird. Theoretically, we could swap between these two and see when something clicks.

For now, I’m going to assign them each a name arbitrarily. I’ll be getting back to these two women to make a later point. For now, let’s move on.

The next corpse is different: we find it inside of the scene of Abigail’s death. This is going to be how most corpses work from now on. It’s relatively rare to find them on the ship in the current day.

First the watch highlights the corpse within the memory scene, and you have to find it in there, and then we switch over to the present-day, and you have to follow a glowing trail to the corpse, again. I don’t like this—it feels redundant to me. This is another thing I’ll be editing out of this video. I wanted to leave the first one in, though. It seems to me that there was a smart way to use these trails, that the game for some reason didn’t. I’ll have more to say on that later.

This is The Doom part 7, another kraken attack death, this time of a man with heavy tattooing. You may notice we’re going backwards—that’s how it works for nearly all chapters from now on, because we’re daisy-chaining corpses into the past.

For now, I’m going to put the cause-of-death for this man in. He’s in focus, and is only a two-pip difficulty, so we could guess him. But I’m going to save the true guesses until the end of this video. Let’s move on for now.

The Doom part 6. An explosion. With some nice frozen-in-time particle effects! No point in guessing this man’s fate at this point, just put the cause of death in.

Before we go, I want to call your attention to the fact that the stairwell to the gun deck is open in this fate scene. We can’t go down there, because there are people in the way. But the fact that it is open is important, in and of itself.

Back in the present day, and the way to the gun deck is open. Because it was open in the fate scene. Our attention is not called to this fact, the way it was after the first memory, when we were immediately facing the door that had just opened the moment we snapped out of it. It maybe could have used more explicit signposting.

There is a trick if you’ve missed a newly-opened door, and don’t know where to go next: If you flip through the chapters of your book that are still blank, the circled locations tell you where there are bodies currently physically on the Obra Dinn, waiting to be found to unlock a chapter. If you ever get truly stuck, you can always check these circled pages, and then poke around the map. But the game doesn’t ever  explain this to you. The ship isn’t that big, and there are only so many nooks and crannies to explore, so I suppose it’s not that big of a problem. But finding a locked door discourages you from exploring, so it would be nice if the game was clearer about when it was unlocking doors. 

This is why I find the “follow-the-trail” segments to be doubly weird. They could have been a great way to guide you to, and through, the next unlocked door. But they never do, not even once. Maybe Pope decided against such explicit hand-holding—which is fine, but just makes the question of why these are here at all all the more perplexing.

On the gun deck, there is a corpse right here, that brings us to The Doom part 5. There’s also a branch here: if we go to the midshipman’s cabin, we can find a corpse that will lead us into Escape part 6. I’m not going to do that, though, and I’m not sure why you would—it’s better to finish up The Doom chapter.

We have a man crushed by a loose cannon in this scene. No ID yet, but put in the cause of death.

Also, pay attention to the following: if we turn around, we can see a door open back here. There’s no reason to go into it—there’s nothing beyond it—but make note of the fact that it’s here, and open. 

Okay, on to the next scene … The Doom, part 4.

A cannon has gone off inside the ship, instantly and simultaneously killing two men we can’t ID yet. The question of the attacker is is actually an interesting one. The cannon was ripped away from its intended target by a tentacle of the kraken. So does that mean we should put “terrible beast” as the attacker here? Or is the man who originally ignited the cannon at fault? For now, we’ll punt the question.

We’re going to see the fate of the man who lit the cannon now, in The Doom part 3. There he is, crushed just as he lit it. We don’t have to make a call as to who is at fault yet, but it is an interesting trial run for a problem that will come up later.

Okay, that’s the end of that three-death chain. To continue the Doom, we’ll want to head out onto the bow section of the gun deck, through a door that’s now open. Remember this door? Yeah, it’s that one. The one that did indeed open in The Doom part 5, but was so out-of-the way there was no reason to notice it opening. And anyway, The Doom Part Five was three deaths ago, now.

Although this door opening technically isn’t arbitrary, it’s still pretty hidden. The Doom Part 2 is well-hidden. Of course if you really want to find it, you can always open up the blank pages of the chapter, and see “On the Bow” circled, right there, on page 75. But, again, the game doesn’t explain this. There’s no point complaining about poor signposting here: Pope is obviously making an intentional decision to be cagey about when, exactly certain out-of-the-way areas become accessible. It’s just weird, is all.

Anyway. Let’s finish The Doom.

A man relieving his bowels off the side of the bow gets some unwanted help from a Kraken. The clue to this man’s identity is the fact that he doesn’t show up in the illustrations. He is the artist. So when we look at his portrait it’s just a signature—“E.S.,” for Edward Spratt, artist.

That’s an easy fate to seal up, but there’s a lot else going on in this tableau, which very much rewards exploration. This guy … no, there’s nothing definitive about him, yet. But these two over here, this is one of my favorite examples of character action as a clue in this game. This is third mate Martin Perrott. This man next to him is carrying two plates, and seems to be serving him food. His portrait has just now snapped into focus.  And in this Justice at Sea illustration, he’s also standing right next to Perrott. So it seems safe to assume that he is … Roderick Andersen, third mate’s steward. 

There’s one other pair of people on this deck I’d like to call our attention to. This man right here is not yet in focus. Not yet. And yet this man, sitting across from him, drinking with him, is. We’re being told right now that we’ve gained a crucial bit of information about this man in this scene that we didn’t have before. I have some gripes about the focus mechanic in this game that I’ll delve into later on, but this moment isn’t one of them: this is an ideal moment in the game for showing the potential of the focus-snapping as a tool to, well, focus our attention. There’s a visual detail here we should be looking for. But I’m actually not going to spoil what’s going on here just yet—I’m going to leave this sailor’s identity up in the air for a little longer, so I can reveal the particular environmental detail in question more dramatically later on.

The next body for us to find is up on the main deck. There’s a whole other deck open in this tableau, in addition to what we just explored! I didn’t even show it to you. 

The Doom part one. Someone calls someone a “bloody Dane” in this scene, and also accuses them of killing their brother. The man who’s speaking then attacks the man he’s speaking to. Since the attacker has a brother, we’re looking for two men with the same last name stationed on this ship. On the manifest, we have a Nathan Peters and a Samuel Peters. I’m going to pencil in Samuel Peters as this man’s identity for now.

As for the man he’s attacking, there’s only one Dane on the ship: Lars Linde, seaman. So let’s put him in. Clubbed, by Samuel Peters. Except we’re not getting a ding, and we should be, because we have three fates put in. So let’s change the attacker to Nathan Peters and see what happens.

There’s our ding. I had the identities swapped—Samuel Peters is the man who must have been killed earlier, and Nathan Peters is the one who’s still alive in this scene. So let’s fix his identity here.

Once you’ve viewed all parts  of The Doom chapter, the book shows you a list of disappearances—people whose fates were not witnessed by anyone and cannot be confirmed without doubt. By their very nature, these are going to be ambiguous. Obviously the kraken killed these people—but were they crushed? Were they torn apart? Were they drowned?

Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, which is that you can put any of these three for any of these men. Maybe more—I haven’t checked. But I’m just going to put “drowned” for all of them, now.

I’m also going to take a moment to take a stab at the identity of this man. He’s in-focus already. We haven’t seen him in very many scenes, but he doesn’t appear in many scenes in the game. (There he is there, in one of his few appearances.) The biggest clue to his identity is actually not in any scene, but in the “Justice at Sea” illustration, where his hand is on the wheel. A quick trip to the book’s glossary shows that the helmsman is the only crew member who would ever really have his hand on the ship’s wheel. So let’s plug Finley Dalton in for his identity. And give him the same drowning fate as everyone else.

OK, now back to the midshipman’s cabin, to open up a new chapter, entitled “Escape!”

This young man is lying in a pool of blood, but the cause of death is unclear. If you have a keen memory, you’ll remember that part of this blood trail was still visible in the present-day, and there was a knife lying near the door. You don’t have to remember that, though—we’ll see it more clearly in another one of this chapter’s parts.

For now, I’m not going to fill in any of this man’s fate. There’s too many unknown variables at the moment.

First mate William Hoscut is comforting this young man in his moment of death, and he calls out to someone named Brennan to bring the sugeon’s kit. There are two other men in the scene this could possibly be, but only one of these men has his hand cupped to his ear. It’s not the most subtle thing in the world, but it is a good use of gesture as a clue to identity. Let’s put in seaman Henry Brennan for this man’s identity.

Another confirmation!

Escape part 5 is the fate of another man we can’t identify yet, but at least we know he was clubbed by the recently-identified Henry Brennan. It looks like he did so after shooting someone else, so this chapter is a real pile-up of murder. And, if you follow the blood trail, this is the scene I was talking about where you can clearly see the knife. 

The fate of this other man is already pretty clear, but the Escape chapter is about to get complicated. The sequence and motives for this series of deadly encounters is all twisted up. In the audio for part four, we hear the voice of a young man—presumably, the young man in the midshipman’s cabin, who died in the arms of the first mate—trying to warn the captain about a mutiny. There’s an audible scuffle, and we hear him get attacked, although we know he won’t die until a couple scenes later. Then, someone gets shot—and, presumably, it’s the person who attacked the young man.

So, in this scene: a shooting, a young man already stabbed and crawling away to die, and unbeknownst to the shooter, Henry Brennan at the top of the stairs, waiting to come down and club him to death. Lot going on here. And unfortunately the identities of many of those involved are still in doubt, including the man shot in this scene, and his shooter.

And this scene is big! There’s another deck open, as we can see now from the positioning of the next corpse. 

In Escape part three, this man is shot by one of the two Englishwomen on the ship. But his identity is still a mystery. Behind him, this bald man’s identity is a mystery, as well. We did see him before, in the End. In fact, all of the mutineers from The End are assembled here, speaking to the close proximity of this chapter to the final one.

Gonna leave this blank, for now. Too many unknowns. 

In Escape part two, we hear one of the women should “Paul, look out!” She looks to be shouting out to this man, so let’s plug his name in as Paul Moss, 1st mate’s steward, the only Paul on the ship. Killed with a sword, but his attacker remains unidentifiable at this moment. 

We get a better view of who all is on this lifeboat attempting to escape in this scene. (Presumably giving this chapter its name.)

The final death in this chapter takes us back down to the gun deck again, showing off the elaborate scale of the tableaus in this chapter. Escape part one shows us one last Kraken death leftover from The Doom, as this man bleeds out from a missing arm. 

In the scene’s dialogue, he can be heard mixing German in with his English. There are no Germans on board the Obra Dinn, but there are two Austrians: Christian Wolff, gunner, and Alfred Klestil, bosun. There’s an additional clue in the dialogue, as well: Before he dies, this man asks about “his Frenchman,” and someone replies “your mate was torn apart.” So we’re looking for someone with a French mate. The only Frenchman on the ship is Charles Miner, bosun’s mate. So the dying man must be Alfred Klestil.

Before we leave this scene, I just want to point out that we see the first mate walking out of his quarters here—which we can’t enter, but the door of which is open—and also see this young man lifting up the door to the orlop deck.

“Escape” is quite a chapter. It’s among the most ambitious in the game when it comes to pushing the limits of sequential tableaus, Obra Dinn’s chosen mode of audiovisual storytelling. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat frustrating the first time through, since you can positively ID so few of the people involved. It improves upon revisiting, which is true for most of the game’s scenes, but there’s something to be said for first impressions.

We don’t know what happened to those people who boarded the lifeboat. I’ll be waiting to fill out this section until we have clearer clues.

Back in the present-day, the door to the first mate’s captain is open now. There’s a corpse in there that triggers the chapter “Murder.” But instead of triggering that, I’m going to head down to the orlop deck, also now unlocked. Here, there are two more chapters we can initiate now. This cow’s skull will initiate the chapter “A Bitter Cold,” but I’m not going to do that yet. Instead, I’m going to follow this faint trail of blood into the port walk, where we can get started on the chapter “Soldiers of the Sea.”

This is a really great scene in terms of staging: we’re confined in a tight space, and can only glimpse snippets the scene’s action through these little slits. But before I get into what’s happening here, it’s time to talk about the game’s identification mechanics.

Through this slit we can see a man. And if we zoom into him, we see that he is now in-focus, which means we should be able to identify him. Why? Who is he?

Well, if we look at where we’re positioned, we’re peering into the purser’s office. There’s only one purser on the ship—he doesn’t have a mate. So given where he’s positioned, this man should be Duncan McKay, purser. Let’s put him in.

Now, that’s all well and good. I have no complaints about how Duncan McKay’s identity is revealed to us—in fact, I think it’s great. But let’s go to the other end of the port walk, and peer in another window.

We’re now peering into the gunner’s store. There are two men inside of this window: this guy … and this guy. They’re standing next to each other in the “Justice at Sea” sketch. And one of them seems to be giving the order to the firing squad. And that’s not all: we saw this man die in The Doom part four, where he was intimately involved with the operation of the ship’s cannons.

At this point, it is evident that these two men are Christian Wolff, gunner, and Olus Wiater, gunner’s mate. So why are their faces still blurred?

Well, you could say, it’s because there are two of them. There was only one purser, but in this case we don’t yet have the necessary information to distinguish gunner from mate, without a doubt. And that would be fine, except: remember these two women. They snapped into focus simultaneously, and very early on. And the most we could do was narrow them down between two people: Miss Jane Bird and Emily Jackson. Much as is the case with the gunner and the gunner’s mate. So what’s going on?

Well, here’s what’s going on, the game lies to you. When it first introduces the blurring element, it says that blurring indicates you don’t yet have sufficient information to determine a character’s identity. Faces will become unblurred when the information necessary to identity them has been revealed in some way. But the unblurring doesn’t actually mean you have sufficient information to determine a character’s identity. For some characters, you’ll never have sufficient information. Some guesswork is unavoidable. What the unblurring really means is that the game has no more clues up its sleeves to show you. I don’t mind how this works, but I wish the game would communicate it to you better. As things stand, it mischaracterizes what the unblurring means. “Sufficiency” never really factors in. It’s just a way of letting you know there are more clues coming down the pipe.

So in the case of these men, their faces are blurred because the game has far more decisive information waiting to be revealed in a later scene. Whereas in the case of these women, there’s no more clues left. The game is telling you you might as well flip a coin at this point, because you’ve got all you’re going to get.

Notice, also, that these two women both have three pips over their portraits—the highest deduction rating. I don’t think the deduction rating aspect meshes very well with the blurred vs. in-focus aspect. I wish Pope had found a single system that conveyed the same information in a more unified way, rather than two independent systems that don’t really interconnect. Speaking for myself, I know that I would be less confused about why the man on the right is still stubbornly out-of-focus if I knew that his deduction rating was ultimately going to be only one-pip, as opposed to three pips like hers. But you can’t see the deduction ratings until the portraits have snapped into focus. That makes their rubric and function more confusing. Personally, I think Pope should have jettisoned the focus system altogether. He could have kept a pip system, maybe one that also indicated when there were crucial scenes still un-viewed you should wait for before guessing.

Anyway, back to the person who actually dies in this scene. He is in focus already. Despite the fact that we’ve only ever seen him in one memory. But, he has three pips, which lets us know we’re going to have to guess based on very little.

Through this window we can see some sort of crab monster, and we can also see a likely cause-of-death. This man is firing a gun, and tracing the trajectory it looks like the bullet missed the crab and hit this man here. The man is just a bit too far to be zoomed in on, though, so we can’t identify him yet.

The staging in this scene is actually my favorite in the entire game, and here I’ve spent the whole scene complaining. Let’s just move on.

Soldiers of the Sea part 6 gives us a man pinned to the wall with some nasty spikes that are going to be a common cause of death in this chapter. His ID is a mystery so far, but let’s put in that cause of death.

In part five, we see one of the giant crabs stabbed and on fire, with one unfortunate young man also caught in the flames. So let’s put that in for him.

Part four gives us our first real close-up view of a live crab and its mysterious rider. It’s a little unclear—it looks like these men might only be being stangled, but if you view their bodies in the other memory it’s clear that their heads have been completely severed. So decapitation it is, for both of them.

The next body is … oh wait, no, that’s not a body, that’s just a burning lantern. The actual next body is up on the gun deck again. This was a multi-deck struggle against these creatures.

In part three, a man who throws an axe at the creatures … gets impaled by spikes for his trouble. If you listen to the dialogue of this scene, he refers to someone as “boss,” which likely means he’s someone’s mate. But we don’t have enough info to positively ID him yet, so we’ll just log the death for now.

Up a deck again, this time to the main deck. 

Someone in-focus this time, which hasn’t been the case for the past few fates. The crucial clue to this man’s identity actually comes not in part 2, but instead in part 3, where someone warns that the crab creature “has already done for Nick.” Stitching together the sequence, we can assume that it’s Nicholas Botterill, the only Nick on the ship, who is “done for” in this scene. Impaled on the spear of one of these crab-riders. The crew’s reactions to this event stretch around behind us—this scene is really well-staged.

And we’ve got another three-fate ding! This time I just want to point out how much I love the music in these confirmation sections. It’s very juicy, and it’s a joy to hear it every time.

The transition to Soliders of the Sea part one hinges on this falling man.

And here it is. My favorite scene of the game. Up in the rigging, with lighting crackling around us, frozen in time in three-dimensional space. Down below us, the crabs stealthily crawl up onto the ship, ready to wreck havoc on the still-unaware crew. Such a great use of verticality in this scene.

For this scene, it really helps to turn to the glossary. We see a lot of men up in the rigging here, and the glossary tells us that the only crew members who climb up in the rigging are topmen.

So even though we can’t yet identify everyone up here, now is a good time to use a handy feature of the game: the ability to put in a character’s crew position, even if you can’t narrow things down further. Let’s put “unknown topman” in for every one of the men we see up here.

Unfortunately, if the portrait is blurred, you have to click through an extra dialogue box and confirm that you want to do this. This is just … [sigh]. I really don’t think the blurring feature works properly. If you’re going to provide a whole gameplay mechanic where you let people take a stab at crew positions before they have enough information to fully determine identity, then don’t warn them every single time they use that feature. Just let them use the feature.

Anyway, the man who gets struck by lighting in this scene is an unknown topman. And I’m going to put in “unknown topman” for everyone else we see in this scene. Including those that have already snapped into focus at this point. We’ll make educated guesses as to their full identity later, based on this information.

OK. We’re done with Soliders of the Sea for now, although there’s a hidden part 8 we’ll find later. Let’s move on.

Back in the present-day, the cargo hold is now open. This is because we saw it being opened in Soldiers of the Sea part four. There are three more bodies in the cargo hold, which means we now have a total of five possible routes forward. For now I’m going to ignore the cargo hold and return to the cow’s skull, to bring us into the chapter “A Bitter Cold.”

In this scene, someone with an Irish accent explains how to slaughter a cow. If we look to the crew manifest, the ship has an Irish butcher, so this is most likely him. But when the scene comes up, who is he? Well, if you listen to the dialogue, the man with the Irish accent instructs another person to hit the cow on the head, saying he will cut his throat afterwards. So he must be not the guy hitting the cow’s head with an axe, but instead the one slitting its throat. Let’s put him in as Emil O’Farrow, butcher.

Before we go, there are other useful clues in this scene. Someone pukes during the butchering, leading someone else to ask, ““Never been on a farm, Charlie?” The man throwing up in the scene must by “Charlie.” There are two candidates here: Charles Hershtik, midshipman, and Charles Miner, bosun’s mate. Since Miner is French, it seems unlikely he would use “Charlie” as a nickname. But there’s one other detail that cinches this. Although the other young man refers to him as “Charlie,” the butcher calls the puker “sir.” Why would he refer to him as “sir,” when he’s younger than him, and seems to be acting as an apprentice? A trip to the glossary entry for “Midshipman” helps us out here: it explains that midshipman assist the tradesmen of the ship, but also are of privileged status. “Charlie” assisted with a butchery, and the butcher is calling him “sir,” despite his age and apprentice status. Sounds like a midshipman—which leaves us with Charles Hershtik, midshipman.

And that’s not all we can do! If we look at these other two young men helping out the butcher, they’re all clustered around Charlie in the “Justice at Sea” illustration. They’re not wearing identical uniforms, which means that they might not all be midshipmen. But! This one is the one who was stabbed in Escape part 6. He died in the midshipman’s cabin and, based on the blood trail he left, he expended his last bit of energy to crawl there while bleeding out, so it’s no accident that he’s there. His last words are an apology to “Pete’s mother,” so we can guess he’s not Peter Milroy. That leaves Thomas Lanke among the midshipmen.

So, this man was knifed … attacker still unknown … but he is Thomas Lanke, midshipman. 

Now who is Peter? Thomas says he “tried his best to pull him back” in his moment of death. Let’s trace back through the scenes he appeared in, looking for a moment where he “pulled someone back.” A good candidate is The Doom part 6, where he can be seen yanking on a rope attached to the exploding man. The exploding man is the last of this cluster of three. So let’s posit that he is Peter Milroy, midshipman.

There we go! Up to 15 fates confirmed. A quarter of the game. 

Back to the chapter “A Bitter Cold,” to find the next body, being transported on the stairs here.

A man dies of illness in in “A Bitter Cold” part 2, who we don’t yet have the means to identify. Let’s put his cause of death in for now—and there’s more we can gather from this scene. We’re in the surgery room right now. And this man, seated by the sick man, is briefing third mate Martin Perrot on the situation. Meanwhile, this other man is snoozing in his chair. Given that this man is giving the authoritative report to Perrot, it seems most likely that he is the head surgeon, Henry Evans. And the sleeping man also stationed in this room is the surgeon’s mate, James Wallace.

Another death from illness in this area, leading us into one of the most pivotal scenes in the game, when it comes to identifying crew members.

Someone’s calling out to the dying man in this scene, calling him “Syed.” So it seems safe to assume that this man lying in the hammock is seaman Solomon Syed. And he succumbed to illness. Easy enough.

Now. Time to notice some details. We already know where Syed is positioned. And if we look at the tag on his hammock, it has the number 54. In the crew and passenger manifest, Solomon Syed appears under the number 54. So maybe there’s a correlation here?

This man died in A Bitter Cold part 2, and he’s now in focus, which he wasn’t in that scene. Maybe it’s because we see him in his hammock here? He’s in hammock #51, so let’s try putting in … 51 … Renfred Rajub as his identity.

And there’s our confirmation. Not just of these three fates, but of the correlation between hammock number and manifest number. Time for a new strategy in IDing these people.

In this particular cubbyhole with the two Indian seamen, we have hammock #51, hammock #53, hammock number #54, and then an unnumbered hammock, simply marked by “X.” “52” seems to be missing. Let’s take an educated guess that this is actually hammock #52, which would make this man …. 52 52 52 … Abraham Akbar, another seaman from India.

With that guess in place, we’re in the position to fill out some other fates. Remember back in The Doom part four, where I mentioned that we could attribute the deaths-by-cannon either to the kraken that grabbed the cannon, or the man who initially sparked the cannon? Well, Abraham Akbar was the man who initially sparked the cannon. So, just for the joys of maximum precision, we can attribute the deaths of these two men to him.

Back in A Bitter Cold part 1, there’s one hammock in here that is unoccupied—#53. Seems like a decent guess that the occupant is this man, calling out to Syed in Hindi. So let’s guess that he’s crewman #53, the last of the Indian seamen, William Wassim. 

OK, we’re done with the men in this cubbyhole, but we’re far from done applying the lessons of this chapter. Remember back in The Doom part two, we saw two men drinking together. One of them snapped into focus, the other didn’t, and I wondered why. The reason is that the tag for this man’s hammock is hidden. Whereas we can see the tag for this man—he has hammock #41. So let’s change him now from anonymous topman to Wei Lee, topman.

Back to A Bitter Cold part one—there’s more here. Elsewhere on the gun deck, there’s a group of men playing cards. Based on the dialogue that opens the scene, it seems that these men are Russian. Two of these men have portraits that are still blurred. But one is in-focus, and we have him marked as a topman already, because he was one of the men we spotted in the rigging. 

The other two men are most likely the two Russian seamen. But there’s only one Russian topman, so let’s say this is Leonid Volkov.

Now, we have a situation … we’ve made enough guesses that we should be on track for a confirmation ding. But none has come. So something must be wrong. The most likely culprit is the attribution of Volkov’s death to Miss Jane Bird, which never anything more than a 50/50 guess. So let’s go back to Escape part three, and revise our guess: this woman who shoots Volkov is in fact Emily Jackson.

And there’s our confirmation. Things are speeding up! We’re up to 21 fates solved.

Armed with this knowledge we now have, let’s swap these women’s IDs: this is Emily Jackson, and this is Miss Jane Bird. And while we’re sewing things up, we can attribute Leonid Volkov as the killer of Paul Moss.

OK! All of that, thanks to what we learned in A Bitter Cold part 1. We have all of that stuff open in the cargo hold, but let’s go up to the First Mate’s cabin and get this skeletal leg in here to open up the chapter “Murder.”

Murder part three opens with a shooting. The shooter’s face is still blurred, so there’s no point in guessing him. The man who’s shot here is in-focus, but we don’t have much to go on in this scene yet, so for now let’s put off trying to ID him, and instead make our way to the next body, which will lead us into Murder part 2.

Murder part two presents us with a scene we’ve seen many times before: the execution by firing squad depicted in the “Justice at Sea” illustration. The captain’s pronouncement names the man to be executed as Hok-seng Lau, so there’s no mystery as to this man’s identity. And he is shot with a gun, obviously. But the question of his attacker is an interesting one, reminiscent of who blew up those men with the cannon.

Is it the captain, who is the one who pronounces the sentence of death?

Is it this man, who gives the order to fire, and who can now be finally identified as Christian Wolff, gunner, thanks to a line of dialogue by the captain? In fact, let’s identify him now. And we can also now, by process of elimination, identify this man as the gunner’s mate, Olus Wiater. We finally have those identities plugged in, and now we know why they stayed blurred for so long: the game was holding out until we witnessed this moment, where Wolff is explicitly named.

Certainly, it must be either the captain or Wolff that is the killer here, right? There’s no way to attribute the killing to a single member of this firing squad … you may think. But you’d be wrong! This scene rewards close viewing—if you take a close look at the bullet traces, you’ll see that in fact every single man firing misses Hok-seng Lau, but one. The only bullet that connects is the one fired by our old friend, seaman Henry Brennan. So let’s put Brennan in as Hok-seng Lau’s killer.

We’re not done with this scene. If you listen to the dialogue at the beginning, you can hear a woman shouting in Taiwanese. And then someone responds to her, calling her a name that is translated as “Miss Lim.” This is a conversation between the other Formosans on the ship. There’s only one woman among the Formosans, and there’s only one Lim, so this woman must be Bun-lan Lim. 

Something else we can do now is jump back to Escape part four. Thomas Lanke was crawling away from a man getting shot in this scene, who we previously assumed was his attacker. And now we can identify that man as Olus Wiater. So we can finally plug in Olus Wiater as the man who knifed him.

Heading into Murder part one now, which finally shows us the titular murder. 

It’s a little difficult to tell what’s going on in this struggle, but it seems like a man is being stabbed. Over in this open cabin we see a glowing shell. And outside it, Hok-seng Lau, who has been knocked out. In part 2, he was executed for the crime of killing Nunzio Pasqua, a crime which it now looks like he was innocent of. This man being stabbed in this scene is most likely Nunzio Pasqua. But who is this man, who’s stabbing him? Well, right before he dies, Pasqua addresses a “Signor Nichols.” So it seems that this man, who actually did the murder, is Edward Nichols, second mate. 

That’s all for part one, but let’s go back to part three. We can now identify the shooter in this scene as, again, second mate Edward Nichols. As for the man being shot, there’s not much to go on. He says one line before he dies. It’s only three words—“give it up,” but if you listen closely, you can just barely discern that he has a Scottish accent.

There are four Scottish people on this ship: William Hoscut, first mate, who we’ve already identified, Duncan McKay, purser, who we’ve already identified, Abigail Hoscut Witterel, wife to the captain, who we’ve already identified, and finally Timothy Butement. Butement? (That doesn’t sound Scottish.) Anyway, Timmy is a topman. And although this man wasn’t among the men we saw in the rigging back in Soldiers of the Sea, he is climbing out of the rigging here. And if we check out the “Under Way” illustration, he’s seated with a row of people on the edge of the ship, all of the rest of whom we’ve identified as topmen. So let’s make a guess that this is Timmy.

It’s never the case that accent is the only clue that you’ll get as to a character’s identity, but it’s often a useful indicator alongside other clues, if you’ve narrowed things down far enough. Return of the Obra Dinn has been localized into a lot of languages, and based on what I’ve seen from the languages I have reading comprehension in, these localizations offer a straight translation of the dialogue into the language in question. This means that a native English speaker, with a good ear for American and UK accents, will have a leg up on international players, who are most likely not going to have an ear for such fine differences.

This is also an accessibility concern for English-language players with hearing loss. Although the game subtitles non-English languages, it doesn’t have any indicator for accents in spoken English, meaning that these clues simply don’t exist for deaf players. To be perfectly honest, I really like how the game rewards close listening, and thinks to include spoken accents as one more nuance in its thick weave of audiovisual clues. I think Obra Dinn would be a lesser game if it didn’t do this. But simultaneously I have to acknowledge that the greater uses you make of a medium’s complete range possibilities, the more you’re going to run into accessibility issues. It’s an insoluble problem, really: although a lot can be done to ensure the accessibility of games, and developers who take the time to provide options for the hearing impaired should be lauded for their efforts, the fact remains that art that takes full advantage of the complete range of audiovisual experience is always going to be inaccessible in some respects to those without hearing, or without sight. 

It’s finally time to head to the cargo hold, and, as I mentioned before, we have three possible branches here. This leg bone hidden behind the steps will bring us to the chapter “Unholy Captives.” Meanwhile, towards the bow end their are two doors. The crab carcas behind this door leads us to the final part of “Soldiers of the Sea,” part 8. But I’m instead going to go through the other door and initiate the short chapter “Loose Cargo.”

The first death of this scene is the death of a stowaway. There’s nothing to solve here. There are some nice details in this scene—for instance we can see Hok-seng Lau guarding the room with the glowing shell—but for the most part this scene exists as a launch point to get us to the next scene.

Loose Cargo part 1 actually has a fate to solve. There’s a man being crushed by cargo here, and if we look up—who is that? Well, it’s Lars Linde, the “bloody Dane” who Nathan Peters accused of killing his brother. Linde claimed it was an accident, and there was another man who confirms this. In that scene, that other man claiming he was a witness is right here. And in this scene—there he is again! Looking on at this whole thing. So it seems that the man who dies in this scene is Samuel Peters. Crushed by falling cargo in what is indeed an accident.

OK! That wraps up that short chapter. Now it’s time for Unholy Captives.

In this scene, the captain is angry with his steward. Instructs someone to tie him up and detain him. The man yells back in Swedish. So it seems safe to assume that this man, who is being restrained in this scene, is Philip Dahl, the Swedish captain’s steward.

The death is nearby. This man’s missing his leg. The ship’s surgeon, Henry Evans, says “All’s fine John, been in worse spots I think.” Who he’s actually addressing here unclear—theoretically, he could be speaking to the surgeon’s mate. But by this point we should know that the mate’s name isn’t John, it’s James. So “John” is most likely the patient here.

There are two Johns on the ship. This doesn’t seem like John Davies, fourth mate, because he’s not wearing an officer’s uniform. He also took part in the firing line that executed Hok-seng Lau, which seems like an odd thing for one of the ship’s mates to do. So let’s instead guess that he is John Naples, seaman. And his fate is … actually what is his fate? If we jump back out to the scene we can see a bloody sword here. So let’s put in that he was killed with a sword. And the most likely candidate seems to be Philip Dahl, hence his detention.

The next corpse takes us back up to the Orlop deck. And sorry, I did a bad job of getting there in this clip, but it would have been super annoying to re-capture.

Unholy Captives part 3, like Loose Cargo, gives us another cargo-transport mishap. This time, it’s seaman William Wasim who’s crushed. They seem to be unusually clumsy with cargo on this ship.

We’ve got 30 confirmed fates now—we’ve halfway there, but don’t worry: the second half is going to go much faster. Before we leave this scene, there’s an important detail to take in. Away from William Wasim’s mishap, we see two men in the carpenter’s room: this man, holding a hammer and emerging from the room to check on the commotion, and this man, still inside, weilding a saw. These two men were previously blurred, but as of this scene they’re finally in-focus.

Both the carpenter and the carpenter’s mate are American. And, given what we know about American in general—and especially America in the early 19th century—you might immediately assume that the black man must be the mate, subservient to the white carpenter. But the game has a little surprise for us here. Remember back to Soldiers of the Sea part three. The man who threw the axe and died yelled “come on, boss!” to another man, who advised him to get down. So the white man who dies in this scene is actually the carpenter’s mate, which means the black man must be his boss, the carpenter.

Is that historically accurate? I don’t know. But at least it keeps us on our toes, and forces us to actually listen to clues, rather than rest on our assumptions. Which in my book is good game design.

Another awkward-to-get-to body leads us into Unholy Captives part 2. A very large amount of people are arrayed to watch this poor bastard get slapped to death by the tailfin of a mer-person. Right before he dies he makes a regrettable joke about frying up this mer-person for dinner, which outs him as the ship’s cook, Thomas Sefton. And, oof … the whole thing’s just an incredibly cringe way to go. Slapped to death by a fish in front of all your friends, and your last words are a dad joke.

We change decks yet again—and I get lost on my way up yet again—as we transition from Unholy Captives part 2 to part 1, to close out this chapter. It’s time for another double-death scene.

Just like the crab-riders in soldiers of the sea, these merfolk can shoot huge spines out of their body, put to especially deadly effect in this scene, with a double-impalement. One of these men is blurred and the other is in-focus, but for now I’m just going to put in the cause of death for each.

Up on the main deck here, there’s a body that can lead us into The Calling, the final chapter you can access from the ship itself. This is the transition to that chapter, but I’m actually going to put off launching into it until we clean up Soldiers of the Sea part 8.

This scene shows us the fate of Winston Smith, carpenter: impaled by the second crab rider, but gets revenge in his final moment by blasting the crab and its rider to death. It’s a wonderfully-rendered scene, and, despite the fact that Smith is a minor character in the grand scheme of things, figuring out his identity is a memorable moment in the game, so it feels like a nice send-off to this character.

And there’s our confirmation that we passed that little implicit bias test, got the carpenter and carpenter’s mate sorted out correctly.

Now it’s time to transition to The Calling, one of the trickiest chapters in the game.

We start out with second mate Edward Nichols, the murderer from the “Murder” chapter, getting shot as he returns to the Obra Dinn from an expedition made with two of the ships’ lifeboats. His shooter is not identifiable yet. The “Calling” chapter all takes place off of the main ship, and it’s cool, if a little bit spooky-feeling, to be able to walk around among the waves. There are bodies of apparenty-incapacitated merfolk on these lifeboats, which explains how they got on the ship in the first place. But overall the scene is pretty mysterious by itself, so let’s just put the immediate cause of death in for now.

All of these people died outside of the Obra Dinn, so we’re going to be finding a lot of corpses on lifeboats in this chapter.

In The Calling part 5, we see one of the Formosan men burning to death, after having opened a cabinet that looks a lot like the one we saw housing that strange glowing seashell in Murder part one. If you look closely in this scene, you see another glowing shell, seemingly brought onboard the boat by one of the merfolk. Curious. 

This man’s face is still blurred, but we can put in the cause of death. 

A corpse on the other lifeboat brings us back in time a few moments, to The Calling Part Four. We can see that Bun-lan Lim dies in this scene, but the exact cause-of-death isn’t immediately evident. That will be a running theme in the remaining parts of this chapter: in a couple of the coming fates, cause of death is much more easily ascertained in scenes other than the ones where the person actually dies.

For instance, we already knew that that man burned to death, but this scene gives us a much better sense of why: it seems that the contents of the cabinet set off a huge wave of energy, and it’s this energy that pacified the merfolk, allowing them to be brought onto the ship in Unholy Captives. And, ultimately killed that man. Anyway, we can’t determine her fate right now, so moving on.

The Calling part three performs a little switcheroo. We can see Bun-lan Lim’s cause of death, now—she’s clearly being strangled by a mermaid. Meanwhile, the cause of death of the man who actually dies in this scene is very obscure, because of the way the struggle is staged. But back in part four, we could clearly see this man with a knife in his neck. So the decisive clues to fates have been swapped! 

But who is this man, anyway? In the “Justice at Sea” illustration, he’s standing alongside the 3rd Mate’s Steward and the 1st Mate’s Steward, and the uniform he wears is identical to theirs. We also know that second mate Edward Nichols is the driving force behind this unsanctioned expedition. So let’s guess that this steward-looking fellow is second-mate’s-steward Samuel Galligan. And he was knifed, but the identity of the Formosan man who attacked him is still unknown at this point.

The cause-of-death of the man who dies in The Calling Part Two is evident: he dies of a spear through his neck. It’s his identity that’s the trickier part. Again, we’re reliant on clues in another scene. This time, it’s a line of dialogue in part three, where, before he dies, Samuel Galligan asks someone named “O’Hagan” if they’re still breathing. Samuel doesn’t get a response, because in fact O’Hagan is not still breathing—he’s dead by that point. He must have died recently, because Samuel isn’t even aware of it in part three. So maybe this is him that dies in part 2. It’s just a guess, though, because also in part two we see a man dragged into the sea, so maybe that was O’Hagan. It’s worth putting it in as an educated guess, though, so let’s do that.

Also in part two, someone is referred to as “Beng” in Taiwanese. So let’s put this mystery Formosan’s name in as It-beng Sia. There’s our confirmation that that man actually was Patrick O’Hagan. And, we can add a little more information, as well, because we now know the identity of who killed Galligan.

The Calling part one features another spearing, of a man whos identity I’m not going to take the time to discern quite yet. I’ll put in the cause of death for now, and then I want to do some clean-up. We can identify the man who shot Edward Nichols in The Calling Part Six now, using process of elimination. His killer was one of the Formosans onboard, and there’s only one Formosan left we haven’t identified. So this man must be Chioh Tan. And Edward Nichols was shot by Chioh Tan.

We can do yet another process-of-elimination identification now. We’ve ID’d the first mate, second mate, and third mate. There’s one other man wearing an officer’s uniform, separated from the rest in the “Justice at Sea” illustration, and he must be John Davies, fourth mate. And he’s the man who killed Olus Wiater … before getting killed himself by Henry Brennan.

Exiting The Calling part one brings up the “disappearances” section for the chapter. There’s no actual mystery to these disappearances: in part 2 and part 3 of the chapter, we can clearly see both of these men being dragged into the sea by merfolk. But because their bodies are lost, they count as disappearances.

I’m not actually going to fill in these disappearances yet. First, I want to take up the disappearances from the “Escape” chapter, first. In Escape, we see who we can now identify as ship’s surgeon Henry Evans leaving the Obra Dinn via a lifeboat with the others. When I first played the game, I used the map at the beginning of the chapter to try and narrow down their position. The left the Obra Dinn when the ship was about equidistant from the Azores islands and the Canary islands. So we can guess that Henry Evans is alive, and escaped to one of those clusters of islands. Except neither of them is correct. (We can tell, because we’re at the point where we should be getting a ding for three correct.) 

It’s not actually the map you should be looking at here, but instead the very preface of the book. This was Henry Evans’ book, before he mailed it to you in that box from the beginning of the game. And here it says that we should return the book to him, guaranteed post to the French Office of Affairs in Morocco. So he’s alive, and in Morocco. Morocco specifically doesn’t show up in the choices as to where he may be, but Africa does, so let’s put that. 

And now that that’s confirmed, we might as well guess that the three other escapees ended up alive in Africa, as well. This fourth one we’ve never even guessed the identity of, but we have the means to do so now. He’s standing right next to the man we already identified as fourth mate John Davies in this illustration, and he’s wearing the same uniform that all the other mate’s stewards are. So let’s put him in as Davey James, fourth mate’s steward.

The Calling is the last chapter available on the ship, and once you finish viewing it a storm starts, and you’re warned to finish up your business. This is the game telling you that there’s no more scenes to see here, although we can, and should, still make deductions about identities.

This inaugurates my least favorite portion of the game: the guesswork portion. YouTuber Matthewmatosis has a review of Obra Dinn, where he complains that the game asks its players to use inductive reasoning, rather than deductive reasoning, which for him renders it less satisfying. I’m a big fan of Matthewmatosis, I think he’s among the best videogame analysts on YouTube, but I have to disagree with him here. Obra Dinn is completely wedded to using audiovisual tableaus as our primary way of accessing information and story. And when you’re using recorded audio and visual dioramas, there’s simply no way to achieve a completely deductive gameplay experience. Dialogue, sound, and 3D models aren’t logical statements, and to try and force them to be would play against the strengths of audiovisual language. If you’re embracing the medium’s affordances in all of their quirks, you’re going to introduce fuzziness and messiness that’s going to make some amount of inductive reasoning inevitable. I think that’s a worthy tradeoff for a game that so wonderfully uses the audiovisual possibilities of the medium, steadfastly refusing the design compromises that arise with vision modes and other tricks, and I think Obra Dinn is better off for its inductive elements.

That said, there’s a reason I like Matthewmatosis so much as an analyst. The examples he chooses of the worst offenders of inductive reasoning in the game are also many of my least favorite portions of the game, as we’re going to see right here. Just because I disagree with Mattewmatosis’ ultimate thesis that a purely-deductive version of Obra Dinn would be a superior version of the game doesn’t mean that that I disagree with any of the constituent gripes that provide the foundation of his conclusion. I don’t think that a purely deductive version of Obra Dinn would be a worthwhile goal, but I do think that the game should have gone further to eliminate guesswork.

But it didn’t. So let’s get into it, starting with the two men who disappeared in The Calling.

As I said before, these fates aren’t all that mysterious—we can see these men both being dragged into the ocean. As for their identities, someone in The Calling part two shouts “Mother of God!” in Russian. So there’s at least one Russian speaker aboard these two rowboats. But potentially only one: Since “Mother of God!” is an exclamation, and not an attempt at conversation, it’s possible that the one Russian aboard just shouted it to himself, with no expectation that anyone could understand him. 

However, we also saw both of these men playing cards with Leonid Volkov in “A Bitter Cold” part one. And at least two men were speaking Russian to each other in that scene. It’s not definitive, but it suggest that these three gamblers are the three Russians onboard. If there’s a way to not flip a coin for these two men’s identity, I’ve never found it. But for now let’s put them in as the Russian seamen. 

Now the man who died in “Soliders of the Sea” part seven. Because of how he’s positioned in the “Justice at Sea” illustration, it’s impossible to see his full uniform. But he’s present in seven fate scenes in the game, and if you inspect his character model in those fate scenes, including the one where he dies, it’s clear that he’s wearing an apron. There’s not many people on this ship whose job descriptions would have them wearing an apron: the butcher, the cook, the two surgeons, maybe the stewards. But we’ve ID’d all of those people. Except for Zungi Sathi, the ship’s steward—he’s the only steward left. Sathi is Indian, and … I guess this guy sort of looks Indian? For some of these final identifications, visible ethnic markers become the best clues we have to go on. I’m not really a fan of it—it makes me feel like I’m doing phrenology, in a way that listening closely to accents doesn’t. I’ll also say that, even if you don’t share my squeamishness about assigning nationality based on little more than skull shape, I just don’t think it works from a gameplay perspective. The art style of both the illustrations and the character models leaves us with little to go on here. But as little as it is, it’s a large part of what we have to go on when it comes down to these final guesses.

We know he was shot, but we still don’t know by who.

This is an ID that Matthewmatosis also got specifically annoyed at. We know this man is a topman, because we saw him up in the rigging in Soldiers of the Sea pt 1. That’s going to help us out when it comes to a lot of these remaining topmen. He’s distinct among the topmen because of his extensive tattooing—in fact, this marks him as culturally distinct from every other man on the ship. Among the various topman, Maba from New Guinea stands out as the only Papuan on the ship. I have to say I don’t know if Pope did any research here on traditional Papuan tattooing, and if players would benefit from specific cultural knowledge from Papua New Guinea when identifying this pattern of tattoos. All I know is that it renders this man distinct—if only for stereotypical reasons—and so I’m going to pencil in the name Maba here.

And, based on our lack of a ding, it seems that we got the coin flip on the two Russian seamen wrong. Let’s swap that.

Speaking of being rendered distinct if only for stereotypical reasons, there’s only one man who wears a turban on the ship. If we was one of the Indian men on the ship, we might assume he’s Sikh—except we know he’s not, because all of the Indian men were already identified, and he wasn’t among them. Also, we know from Soldiers of the Sea pt 1 that he’s a topman, and none of the Indian men on the ship were topmen. There’s one Persian topman onboard, crewman #36. We see this guy carrying a sword in Soldiers of the Sea part four, and looking back to The Doom part 2 we see that same sword hanging next to hammock #36. So let’s pencil in Omid Gul.

Overall, the topmen are the least European portion of the crew: there are four Chinese men, one Papuan, and one Persian. But there are still three European men among them: a Scot and two Englishmen. We’ve already identified the Scot, and one of the Englishmen, so this last unidentified white man among the topmen, seen in the rigging in “Soldiers of the Sea” pt 1 alongside all the others—must be Englishman Lewis Walker. There’s an identity filled in that has been pestering us for a long time—this man died at the hands of Captain Witterel all the way back in The End pt 3. He was the third corpse we found in the entire game.

There are three East Asian-looking men still to identify. We know that two of them are topmen, because we saw them in the rigging in “Soldiers of the Sea” pt 1. We don’t have a clear verification of the third man’s crew position, but we did hear him translate what the Formosans were saying before he died in The Calling pt 1. He’s not one of the Formosans—we’ve identified all of them. Modern Taiwanese is a Chinese dialect, so I guess we’re supposed to assume he’s Chinese. I actually don’t know anything about the language spoken by the Formosans in this game—the indigenous vs. colonial history of modern-day Taiwan in the late 18th and early 19th centuries is not something I’m familiar with. I do know that Pope specifically had a language specialist helping him out there. In this case I think it’s best not to over-think things, and just assume this man is Chinese. Which means he must be the third remaining Chinese topman.

In his video, Matthewmatosis claims that these three men have distinct shoes, and in A Bitter Cold part 1 you can see these shoes sticking out of numbered hammocks, and assign the IDs that way. The shoes are certainly sticking out of the hammocks, but you can’t ID them in this scene—you have to find them in other scenes and remember what the shoes look like. I suck at this, so I brute-force guessed these three in my first playthrough. I guess technically it’s fair, if you have an amazing eye for feet. And it definitely rewards close observation, which is always a plus. But honestly I think these three topmen are my least favorite part of the game, which I guess I’ll chalk up to a personal failing. Anyway, let’s put ‘em in.  

Now that we’ve identified all of the topmen, all we have left are three seamen, and, oddly, the bosun’s mate, Frenchman Charles Miner, who is still kicking around in here somehow. Let’s take a stab at the Bosun’s mate first. 

John Davies told the bosun that his mate was “torn apart” by the kraken—so he can’t be this man, who was killed much earlier, in the Unholy Captives chapter. He also can’t be this man who was blasted by a canon, not ripped apart by the kraken. That leaves these two men, who were both among the Chapter 7 disappearances. The last time we see the bald man, he is bravely spearing the kraken, and is right beside the bosun. It’s suggestive, if not conclusive. 

If you look at the other scenes this man is in, he’s doing work that could easily be mistaken for seamen’s work—but if you cross-reference things, you can see that in many of these scenes the bosun is also present. It’s not at all clear, usually, that the Bosun is his supervisor. (Their actions and relative positioning in a scene like Unholy Captives pt 1 is a far cry from the dead giveaway that something like The Doom, pt 2 is establishing the relationship between the third mate and his steward.) None of this is conclusive in any way, but it piles up. In any case it’s got to be between him and this other man.

And it’s not the other man!

Now that we’ve finally established this man’s identity, it’s time to go back and figure out who killed Zungi Sathi, who turns out to be one of the toughest fates in the game. The man who shoots him is just a bit too far away to focus in on through the porthole here, but you can see that he’s holding a gun with a long barrel. If you trace through the other scenes in Soldiers of the Sea, you can see the gunner and his mate distribute several guns to crew members. One of them is some sort of short-barreled gun, maybe a blunderbuss or something, I don’t know—I’m no expert in contemporary firearms, let alone 18th & early-19th-century ones. In any case, that’s not what Zungi Sathi was shot with. So we need to track the two long-barreled guns, instead. One ends up on the hands of first mate William Hoscut, and the other two end up in the hands of the bosun and the bosun’s mate. Hoscut is clearly visible pinned against the wall and not pointing his gun at Sathi in Sathi’s death scene. But the guy out there looks like Miner, so let’s put him in.

I’ve been hard on the game in this final section because of the amount of guesswork involved, but I do love this part. It’s a real tour dee force when it comes to highlighting the game’s unique brand of sequential tableau-based storytelling.

Now we’re finally down to our last three seamen, and again it’s time to turn to visible ethnic markers. Two of the remaining seamen are black, but out of those two one, one man dresses in a more traditionally Western way, and the one time we hear his voice he has an English accent.

So let’s guess that this man is Hamadau Diom, seaman from Siera Leona. You’ll notice the confirmations work differently now—because you can solve fifty-eight fates before moving on to the final chapter, rather than fifty-seven, the final four verify in pairs of two.

That just leaves guessing which of the final two English seamen is which. I’ve never found any clues in any of my playthroughs, it’s just a coin toss. Again, my least favorite part of the game. I like this game a lot, and I want to be fair to it, so please—if you’ve discovered a vital clue to any of the identities I’ve missed across multiple playthroughs of the game, shout out in the comments. 

I think the two pairs—of these two Russian seamen, and these final two seamen—are the weakest parts of the game. They always come down to a coin flip: unlike with the women passengers, none of them is responsible for another crew member’s fate, so you can’t even narrow down your possibilities that way. 

But I’d love to hear that I’m wrong, and that I’ve missed something. Pope does acknowledge from the outset that we’ll have to make assumptions based on partial information, but unlike, say, the Bosun’s mate, we don’t even get enough information here to make a solid assumption—it’s just a coin flip. Maybe I’m wrong, and indeed I hope I am!

Of course, there’s an overall mitigating factor to this whole section that I haven’t mentioned: you don’t even need to do it. You don’t need to guess any of these men’s fates—not now, not ever. This isn’t like in Ace Attorney, where if you encounter something ambiguous, you need to mind-read which option the developers were thinking in order to progress the story, and risk of damaging your HP if you guess wrong. This is a game in which you’re given free reign to miss clues, to fail, even to outright give up, and you still get to make it to the game’s ending. It’s great, really, and while I have a tiny amount of gripes about fairness with just a couple of these final IDs, really it’s the epitome of fairness for the game to let you walk away from these fates and still see the ending, no problem.

But since I did do these, I now get the message that there’s nothing left to do on the Obra Dinn. There’s still one more chapter, but it’s accessed through other means.

Honestly, I’m wondering how I should handle this other chapter. At this point, we can assemble the game’s story, and relish its developments. Driven mad with greed after seeing the Formosan’s closely-guarded glowing seashell, second mate Edward Nichols stoops to murder and kidnapping to secure one or more shells. His expedition away from the Obra Dinn is cut short by merfolk, pacified by the power of the shell itself, activated by It-beng Sia, who sacrifices himself in the process. By bringing the merfolk onboard, the crew of the Obra Dinn curse themselves, first to attack by the crab riders, and then by the kraken. After witnessing the bloody death of Alfred Klestil, among others, fourth mate John Davies and gunner’s mate Olus Wiater contemplate the captain’s disappearance and erratic behavior. Surviving midshipman Thomas Lanke overhears this and tries to warn the captain, only to be stabbed by Wiater, who is then shot by Davies, who has apparently lost whatever taste he had for mutiny after this senseless act of violence. John Brennan overhears the gunshot, and subsequently kills Davies. First mate William Hoscut is horrified by Wiater’s stabbing of Lanke, and comforts the young man in the moment of his death. But this doesn’t stop him from ultimately joining with the mutineer’s cause and confronting the captain, with deadly results—for him and all of the mutineers.

Everything fits together, and approaching the end of the game you might be hoping for a final revelation that not only ties everything up, but also makes it truly compelling as a story. But you don’t really get that—the end feels as perfunctory in its storytelling revelations as it does in the raw mechanics of its final two fates. 

The now-dead Henry Evans wills you a monkey’s paw, which as it turns out comes from a monkey he deliberately killed onboard the Obra Dinn as a way of discovering what sort of deal the Captain made to get the kraken to stop attacking. Captain’s steward Philip Dahl died after picking up one of the glowing shells. I found this weird—given how convinced he is that the merfolk have cursed the ship, it seems odd that he’d be so genre-unsavvy as to pick up a glowing otherworldly sea totem. But maybe that’s just the enchanting power these shells have on people.

It turns out the captain did not make a deal with the merfolk. He was killing them off, one by one, making demands they didn’t heed. Instead, it was third mate Martin Perrott who saved the day. He released the surviving mermaid, and gave it the shell. The mermaid killed him for his trouble, but it also granted his dying request for the Obra Dinn to safely return to England. 

Of course, Perrott doesn’t realize that this is a monkeys-paw wish, to be fulfilled in the most ironic way possible, so although the Obra Dinn itself floats into port at Falmouth, none of the crew that stayed aboard survived.

And that’s it. Those are the last fates, and the end of the game. Nothing too revelatory.

Pope’s predecessor to Obra Dinn, Papers Please, was an influential game. But it took a little while for its influence to be felt. Papers Please was released in 2013, and it wasn’t until around 2016 that you started seeing fully-formed clones of it coming out, when games like The Westport Independent and Orwell hit on its same mix of puzzle-y desk work and political oppression. If we’re lucky, we’ll see a similar crop of games copying Obra Dinn in the coming year or so. Although the game has a few imperfections here and there, I really think it provides a sturdy foundation for a new subgenre of investigation game. 

And already we’re getting hints of games that aren’t “Papers Please-likes” so much as they are “Popelikes,” drawing influence from Papers Please but with a side-helping of Obra Dinn. One arrived just this past July: Tim Sheinman’s Family, which has you attempting to trace out the family tree of a particular UK music scene, without the benefit of official liner notes and instead relying on interviews and set notes to determine which musicians left which bands and joined which other bands, when. At first glance it’s much more like Papers, Please or Orwell, since it’s so heavily document-based. But it retains the Obra Dinn touch of telling you when you got a certain amount of educated guesses correct, so that you can burrow down and make even more educated guesses going forward.

It’s nice to see Obra Dinn’s influence less than two years later, but I hope that we see even more in the coming years. For years already, indie teams have used frozen tableaus as a cost-cutting alternative to fully-animated characters. But Obra Dinn’s approach to visual clues really ups the standards of what can be expected in tableau-based storytelling, and I hope we see more games directly building on that precedent.

I hope my overall feeling on Obra Dinn hasn’t been obscured by a pile of backloaded gripes: I really do think the game is excellent, charting out a bold new possibility for investigation games that avoids all the usual problems these games face, whether those be vision modes, point-and-click hotspots, journals and to-do lists that are too quick to autonomously update themselves, or hard gates in story progress that require you to successfully guess what the developer was thinking. This video has taken me a long time to make, re-playing the game very slowly and taking extensive notes on all of the various clues we get to people’s identities—even the ones in the “guesswork” section, which are mostly fair, I just wish that the game would have done a better job of tightening up a small number of coin-flip moments. And all that time re-playing has just cemented that this is honestly one of my favorite games to come out in the past two years. And I think that between Obra Dinn and Papers Please Lucas Pope stands as perhaps the preeminent indie game designer in the US, maintaining not only a high level of quality but also of innovation. The man’s basically inventing genres left and right! Wherever this series goes from here, it’s going to be hard for me to pick a better game to look at. Until then, thanks for watching.

2 thoughts on “Return of the Obra Dinn Commentary and Critique

  1. godfreyofboulogne August 13, 2021 / 8:05 pm

    Timothy Butement: identifiable also by his tattooed arm which is visible in Bitter Cold 1, as it is poking out from his (numbered) hammock as he sleeps.


  2. godfreyofboulogne August 13, 2021 / 8:29 pm

    Guesswork for the Russian in The Calling? Nope, not at all. The pipe in the satchel beside his hammock (Bitter Cold 1) identifies him positively.


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