Return of the Obra Dinn
This is the final part of a series of reviews. Telling Lies, Hypnospace Outlaw, and now, Return of the Obra Dinn. All three games revolve around you being the detective - solving cases. However, unlike most other games, these three games require you to actively participate in piecing together the story. In essence, they are more "story discovery" games than traditional storytelling. Of course, they deploy wildly different media to get there, but the spirit is similar. Oh, and all three games can be played on potato PCs, since none of them feature 3D graphics.
Return of the Obra Dinn features 1-bit graphics, in a homage to the 80s. However, it comes with a modern twist, using new dithering and anti-aliasing techniques, and is quite a bit more viewable than you may assume a 1-bit game to be. It still retains all the charm of the monochrome palette. Crucially, while it is undoubtedly less intensive to create art for a 1-bit game, the style is deployed in the perfect game. While certainly more viewable than its 80s counterparts, the visuals are still kind of ambiguous. This adds immensely to the mystery of the game. Not to mention, it looks utterly gorgeous.
This game turns narrative design and storytelling into a gameplay mechanic in and of itself. The basic gimmick is rather simple - you're a detective (well, an insurance adjuster) who has to investigate the case of the ship Obra Dinn. All 60 of its crew have died or vanished, and all you have is a crew list. It is now up to you to piece it all together - figure out the fates of all 60 crew members of the Obra Dinn. Your only tool is a clock that winds back and lets you experience the last moments of a corpse's life. You hear their final words, and a freeze-frame "3D photographs" at the moment they died. Oh, and you get a series of photographs of the crew members.
Here's the real thrill - that's all you get. You have to carefully listen to the dialogue, investigate the scene of death, and make deductions accordingly. Like Telling Lies and Hypnospace Outlaw, there is no spoon-feeding, markers or giveaway clues. The core gameplay mechanic is to literally discover the story of the Obra Dinn.
Needless to say, this approach takes the millennia old concept of narrative to a new dimension only made possible by the interactive medium. Of course, it wouldn't be engaging were the story itself lacklustre, but by golly - what a story Return of the Obra Dinn offers! It's full of history, mystery, a bit of fantasy - in one incredible, tragic yarn.
Before playing it, I'd recommend doing a bit of research on the East India Company, their activities, how merchant ships in the late 18th and early 19th century functioned etc. General knowledge about the era will go a long way. There's tons of references and clues that'll aid the well informed in solving each fate. For example, you could tell from the accent (or language) where a crew member must be from. They are a midshipman, and you can see they have a friend. You see the crew list, and find two Dutchmen. You now know the identities of two people. Or, you find a couple of men suffering from pneumonia. If you know where in the world there were outbreaks at the time, you can narrow down their identities. Of course, it goes a lot deeper than that, with multiple clues required to deduce the fates of each crew member. The sheer variety of clues and their nature is staggering, and keeps things fresh and free of any repetition. More morbidly, there's also a vast plethora of ways the people die. Kinda reminds me of the prologues to Six Feet Under. In the end, it's one giant, interconnected logic puzzle that's impossibly coherent.
Sometimes, it's nigh impossible as the evidence get too obscure, so you have to make educated guesses. The system is brilliant - you have to get 3 fates right to be confirmed, which is exactly the right balance between being able to make educated guesses, and just doing trial and error. In addition, there's a wonderfully designed log that helps you keep track of your findings.
I'm hard pressed to find a flaw in the Return of the Obra Dinn. If I had to, I'd say the music, while pretty good, doesn't quite live up to the sheer excellence of the rest of the game. I did get stuck at one point where the game ramps up difficulty, and had to look up a "nudge guide". This is mostly due to my lack of deductive skills as I missed some important clues, but I'd imagine many would get stuck in a couple of places. But it seems like they have addressed some of that in a recent patch of the game, and looking up a guide is not the end of the world anyway.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a miraculous game. It takes several leaps in imagination, to create a game like none other, and somehow delivers on its high ambitions with near-perfect execution. Through all of its designs, the game is incredibly immersive and addictive. I finished it in one single day, and experienced one of the rare moments where you forget the real world and find yourself absolutely arrested by the virtual world. Return of the Obra Dinn a masterwork for the ages, one that will be talked about for years to come as one of the finest achievements of this generation. (And no, I don't just mean gaming generation...)
Finally, how one man made much of this game, is beyond me. Bravo, Lucas Pope!