By: Dace Eaton
Return of the Obra Dinn, created by Lucas Pope and released in 2018, is a game primarily about clues. This makes sense, as Obra Dinn is ostensibly a detective game and clues are a necessary part of the detective genre in any medium. The way Return of the Obra Dinn presents its clues though, and how the player interacts with and makes sense of them, is unique in a way that makes most of the gameplay experience extremely satisfying. It also heavily relies on, while also subtly subverting, many of the tropes of detective genre fiction as a whole to similarly satisfying ends.
The plot of the game revolves around the central mystery of its title ship. The Obra Dinn was lost at sea in 1803, but has now returned to port with all 60 of its crew and passengers seemingly missing. You play as an insurance claims adjuster for the British East India company who has been tasked with finding out what befell each person aboard the Obra Dinn in order to award or charge their respective estates. The specific backstory of your player character and the greater context for the narrative is fairly unimportant to the game itself though. What is important is that there is now a case to solve. Instead of just one or two bodies though, as in more standard detective literature, there are sixty fates (the game specifically uses this term, as several people who were aboard the Obra Dinn are still alive) to solve the who, what, where, when, and hopefully why of. Already the game is both playing into and playing with genre tropes, and the actual gameplay hasn’t even started.
Once aboard the ship you are presented with the two objects which you will actually use to solve these fates, which also represent the two major gameplay mechanics: a book containing all the information you’ll need about the Obra Dinna and its shipmates, and a magical stopwatch. The book provides you with lots of information from the start, including the names, nationalities, and jobs of everyone on board the Obra Dinn, a map of the ship itself, and an illustration of everyone who was on board. It is also where you fill in the outcomes of every person’s fate as you discover them. The provides the game with its most unique and memorable mechanic though. When you find a corpse aboard the ship (and you will find a lot of corpses) you can use the stopwatch to see a frozen, three-dimensional tableau of the moment of that person’s death, as well as hear a short audio clip of the seconds leading up to it. These tableaus are where the game provides the vast majority of the clues you will use to deduce all of the fates. Virtually everything in them can be used as clues to help you, from the character models, to the dialogue heard, to the accents used, to the objects seen on board, to how people stand in relation to one another. Everything presented in these vignettes can then be compared with the information you’re given in the book and used to put down the identity of the person who died, what their cause of death was, and who, if anyone, was responsible for killing them. The only restriction on making these guesses is that the game only confirms them in sets of three, so as to discourage random, brute-force guesswork.
All of these gameplay elements and mechanics add up to make Return of the Obra Dinn a game that does fit squarely within the rules of classic detective fiction. The clues presented to pretty much all fall in line with how detective stories are ‘supposed’ to present their clues, as outlined by Marie Rodell or in the compilations by Howard Haycraft. No clues are explicitly hidden from the player, even the most obscure ones. Once you see all of the tableaus, and there are much fewer tableaus than there are individual fates to solve, you have everything you need to solve every one of the fates, even if it might not seem like it at first. The true fun of the game comes from exploring all of the tableaus in-depth, and finding pieces of information that lock together some identity, be it a tag on a hammock, or a hand cupped to someone’s ear, or line of dialogue in Russian. This aspect of gameplay is where Obra Dinn gets to play with the genre tropes of detective fiction. Here, the main aspects of the murders that are most compelling to figure out aren’t usually the cause of death or even what the killer looks like, as those are typically pieces of information directly presented to you in as the main focus of each tableau. Instead, the unknowns come in the form of specific identities, character relations, and personal details. Furthermore, a lot of the fun of standard detective stories is the so-called ‘library scene’, where the detective gathers the relevant parties in a library and goes about explaining the solutions to whole mystery of the story; who’s guilty of committing the murder, how they did it, and how they tried to get away with it. A good detective story should build to a satisfying library scene for the reader or viewer, either because they have figured out the mystery along with the detective, or because everything the detective says makes total sense and fits into seemingly obvious place. In Return of the Obra Dinn, there is no big ‘library scene’ reveal at the end of the game. Sure, there is an epilogue that explains some of the unknown details of the plot, but not in a way that radically changes what the player already knows by that point. There are however, lots and lots of miniature library scenes baked in throughout the game. They happen whenever you finally realize that the tags on hammocks correspond to the numbers on the crew log, or when you see the accident with the rigging that killed someone’s brother mentioned in another scene, or when you narrow down who actually shot the man through the wall amidst the chaos of monster crabs attacking. These little moments of revelation and piecing-together of small stories are the core of what makes Obra Dinn engaging to play, and provide the same type of satisfaction that’s found at the end of a good detective story sprinkled all throughout the game’s playthrough. Obra Dinn also seems to lean into this feeling of lots of ‘library scenes’ with how it actually confirms the fates for you. Every time you get three fates correct the game stops and opens the book to the pages of the fates you solved correctly, typesetting the information of each person’s demise or survival into the book one at a time with a satisfactory music cue punctuating each one. These moments highlight the personal moments of revelation that you have by providing textual confirmation, almost in a “Clue”-like way that, “yes you were right, it was Henry Brennan on the Gun Deck with a club that killed that man”.
The plot of the game itself does not appear to be the most important thing to its experience. It involves mutiny, magical shells, sea monsters, and many unfortunate accidents, but is not particularly unique in its tale. The way you discover that story though, via bits and pieces spread throughout smaller vignettes of death and betrayal, all wrapped up in clues, satisfying gameplay, and design that incorporates and subverts many aspects of classic detective fiction, is what make Return of the Obra Dinn highly successful both as an engaging game and a piece of the detective genre.