Critical Play: Return of the Obra Dinn

Name of game: Return of the Obra Dinn

Creator: Lucas Pope

Platform: Available on macOS, Windows, PlayStation, Switch, Xbox One. I used Windows.

Target Audience

Return of the Obra Dinn is mechanically simple enough that it could be played by young children, but it requires a fairly high level of cognitive thinking to effectively unravel the mystery (I get stuck a lot!) so I think the target audience is anywhere from older teenagers to adults (16+). It’s a fairly slow game that requires a lot of dedication so I’d say it’s less targeted at casual gamers and more at committed players.

Formal Elements

Players, Rules and Procedure: 

This is a single player game. You play as an Inspector who has arrived to determine what happened aboard a ship on which all crewmates have died. You explore the boat and use accumulated clues, centered around a logbook and stopwatch, to identify the fate of each person who died on the boat. As you do this, the story of the boat’s fate is filled in. The basic mechanics of the game involve you navigating around the boat on foot to replay different scenes of death: you can use the stopwatch to enter into the last moments before a person died. You then gather information from within these replays to piece together the story. The only thing you have to fill in is who each person is and how they died. The rest of the narrative is filled in by the logbook. You identify people with small clues that accumulate (bits of dialogue, notes in the logbook, clothing) and causes of death through the replays. Your guesses are validated in sets of threes. Once you fill in all the information, you solve the game and unravel the mystery. This is the basic procedure of the game.

Conflict, Objective, Outcome: 

There’s no direct conflict for the bulk of the game, as you are simply the Inspector trying to understand a past story. However, you see a great deal of conflict on the ship between the crewmates and the external forces trying to kill them. Your objective in the game is to logically deduce who everyone is and how they died in order to uncover the mystery. This is supposedly your profession as the Inspector, and it’s also a natural urge to follow the story. The ultimate outcome of the game (though I haven’t played it all the way through) is to solve the mystery of each death and see the full story come together in the logbook. I wonder whether there is a final end scene of conflict once you solve the story, or if the game just ends — for me, this has yet to be seen!

Resources and Boundaries: 

You collect information as a resource in this game: clues that you take note of in your logbook. Your two big resources are the logbook and pocketwatch, described above, which allow you to navigate the story. In terms of boundaries, you are only allowed to move around on the ship. The time boundaries are also interesting: you can’t freely time travel. You have to use the pocket watch in the vicinity of a specific corpse to enter specific memories. This adds another layer of complexity to the gameplay.

Types of Fun 

This is definitely a game centered on narrative fun. The story is so well-crafted that you want to keep playing just to unravel it. Discovery is a big part of the game as well; the feeling of satisfaction you get when seeing a new scene unlocked, or correctly identifying the story of a character, is the best part of playing.  There’s also a challenge element to this game; it’s difficult to keep all the relevant clues in mind to figure out which character is which. I sometimes found it too challenging and wanted to stop playing when I needed a mental break. 

Moments of Success and Things I’d Change

I think the aesthetic of this game is very compelling; it’s a beautifully simple design. I think the greatest success is the way the complicated story weaves together. In terms of things I’d change, I sometimes think the game is too difficult; there should be ways to get help if you’re in too deep and get stuck at certain points. 

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