Sometimes, the best way for a person to achieve a singular vision is to do everything themselves. This has been historically true of visual and music artists and is also true for video game developers.
The artist in the video game world that immediately comes to mind is Toby Fox and his unique RPG, Undertale. Lucas Pope is a somewhat lesser known artist of similar pedigree. His game Papers, Please took the gaming world by storm in 2013. Papers, Please was a compelling game about working a border checkpoint. It won numerous awards and mentions in year of release.
That merits of Lucas Pope excited me when I learned about his 2018 followup, Return of the Obra Dinn.
What is Return of the Obra Dinn?
Created entirely by one person (Lucas Pope), Return of the Obra Dinn is a logic puzzle disguised as a first person murder mystery.
You play an insurance adjustor who visits an abandoned ship, the titular “Obra Dinn,” in an effort to determine what happened to the various cargo, belongings, and crew aboard. The end goal of the game is to provide a complete assessment of the damage.
To do this, you are equipped with a magic compass and the roll book from the ship.
The magic compass is activated by the player when near the corpse of a passenger that was murdered on the vessel. Activating the compass sends the user back in time, where you walk through a 3D still frame of the moment that passenger became a corpse.
The roll book is easier to understand. This is a book which will be referenced constantly during the game. It is where the information of the various members of the crew, how they died, and who killed them is populated by the player.
Using a combination of the magic compass scenes, a list of the crew names, roles, and nationalities, a sketch of the crew, a map, a blueprint of the ship, and an ever-growing diary of the events of the voyage, the player must fill the entire book to determine who owes what.
What makes Return of the Obra Dinn so good?
Return of the Obra Dinn succeeds as an expert game through the flow of its story.
The story is built out into chapters. The chapters tell a chronological tale about the rise and fall of the crew.
What is interesting about the structure is the way in which it is exposed. The player moves backward through chapters, seeing the story in reverse. Even the moments of the individual chapters are revealed in this way.
The player is challenged to translate the tale forward, backward, and sideways to understand how characters were killed, where, and by whom/what.
I believe that presentation is supplementary to great gameplay, but here, Lucas Pope has given us both. The audio-visual design is sparse but effective – a perfect fit for the game.
Recommending Return of the Obra Dinn
At $20 retail price, Return of the Obra Dinn is easy to recommend for puzzle game fans. If you enjoy puzzle games from the first-person perspective, this is an obvious purchase.
It took me 10 hours to solve the complete puzzle, without using guides. While I think the true ending (unlocked by solving the fate of all 60 crew members) was a bit underwhelming in a vacuum, the ambient and active storytelling throughout the adventure is the true reward.
More than that, it may inspire you to get your own boat insured.