They create worlds: Return of the Obra Dinn

One of the things that video games can do magnificently is create worlds. These posts are an occasional exploration of games that I love because of where they take me.

There are certain experiences that would only be possible in video games – or perhaps in some medium that doesn’t even exist yet. In view of my woeful ignorance of this unknown future medium, I will come out and say that Return of the Obra Dinn could only exist as a game, in more respects than just one. And in the process, it is a wonderful example of how video games can be entirely unique and different.

And that’s before we even get to the – ah, but that would be a spoiler.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a detective game – well, of sorts. The game, developed by a sole madman called Lucas Pope (doing the design, writing, graphics, music and sound, though thankfully getting in voice actors to do the dialogues), asks you to take the part of an insurance inspector working for the East India Company, and to investigate the Obra Dinn, a merchant ship that has been missing for years and that has reappeared with not a living soul aboard. Games being games, you’re given a magic pocketwatch that you can use on corpses (or any remains of a living being, really), which allows you to witness their final moments and explore the instant at which they died as a sort of diorama. Your task is to determine who these dead are, how they died and by whose hands (if indeed they died by the hands of a who, rather than by rather more strange means). You also have access to a logbook that includes a drawing of the crew members and maps of every deck of the ship, and that conveniently lists everyone who was aboard the Obra Dinn, from the captain and officers to seamen, topmen and midshipmen, but also various passengers – and yes, all these terms will end up being relevant. The man in the uniform? Probably the captain, based on the uniform and only one person in the drawing wearing that particular outfit. But what about those three guys over there in slightly different uniforms? What about the men who clamber the masts? What about those two who are always close to the carpenter’s quarters?

As you find all the remains aboard and witness all those death scenes, you start putting the scenes together. That’s the First Mate, which you might know because in one of the death scenes someone addresses him by name, so the man who’s usually with him is probably his Stewart. She’s one of the female passengers, but she’s the only one not wearing a ring, so she must be Miss So-and-so. The sailors playing cards speak Russian to each other, and you’ve already identified all of the Russians except for one, therefore that bearded guy is the remaining Russian. You hear snippets of conversation, but these aren’t always helpful if you can’t tell who’s saying what – but having a couple of names and seeing who’s actually in a scene helps you narrow things down. Someone’s remains can’t be discovered, which suggests that their bodies went overboard – so how to figure out what killed them?

So far, so logic puzzle, though the diorama format is one that would be tremendously difficult to create in a different format. Site-specific theatre, perhaps? But then Return of the Obra Dinn lets you go back and forth between different remains and different deaths, and that would be a tall order for site-specific theatre. You get accidental deaths by cannonfire – how could you present this as a three-dimensional still you can experience in any other medium than video games? And as you accumulate these final moments, you begin to string together the story of the Obra Dinn and everyone aboard. You might find someone bleeding to death in one scene, but as you go through all the preceding deaths you realise that you’re also watching that person’s last few moments in reverse, up to the point where they received the wound that sealed their fate.

The way you begin to understand all of this is properly four- (and more-) dimensional: these individuals who are dead at the point in the game where you spring into action had a life that expressed themselves in where they were, when they were there, with whom, doing what. The Obra Dinn becomes a composite of a place, its community and their story. When I played the game, I was annoyed at first that you couldn’t just jump between death scenes you’d already discovered by selecting them in the logbook – but then, having played for another hour or so, it clicked: your brain perceives all the links differently, more holistically, if it’s all tied to where you are and where you have to go. That guy who was shot by the captain – where did I see his death? And how did he get there from here? What happened in between, and who died on the way? With a regular logic puzzle, you’re well advised put your clues in a grid: the person sitting on the very left is wearing blue trousers, the woman from France sits next to the man from Japan. With Obra Dinn, the grid is a ship, over a period of days, it is visual (who’s wearing which outfit or uniform) and acoustic (who calls whom by which name, in what accent or language?) and topographical (what the heck is an orlop deck?), it is sociological and cultural (who associates with whom, and why?). Lucas Pope’s game is a stunning example of how games can make a microcosm out of whole cloth – though while the medium allows for these possibilities, actually creating them and making sure that everything fits, that requires true artistry.

Finally, Pope’s creativity doesn’t just end at the game itself: he’s also chosen to give Return of the Obra Dinn an aesthetic that, again, is entirely of the medium. It succeeds at looking both old, representing a very specific 19th century world and its artefacts, and old in terms of computer games: Pope’s game has a dithered 1-bit look, which is reminiscent of early point & click adventure games on Macintosh computers, the kind of games that I remember reading about in the mid-’80s, lending every moment of Return of the Obra Dinn a sort of double vision into the past, or pasts: this is a story about gruesome goings-on aboard a sailing ship during the imperialist era, and it is a game as mysterious and elliptic as games 30 or 40 years old, where the medium’s idioms hadn’t been as codified yet and every game presented you with a strange, different world that does things its very own way.

Which makes it sound, though, as if Return of the Obra Dinn is a game for gamers only, which is decidedly not true. It is a game for puzzle heads, for hobby sleuths, for fans of logic puzzles that are nonetheless tired of grids and wouldn’t mind a bit of mutiny and murder to spice things up. And it is most definitely a game for people who think that video games are about shooting terrorists or jumping on turtles or stealing cars and running over pedestrians and then doing some more crimes. Again: what other medium lets you travel back in time to figure out what happened on a mysteriously abandoned ship, like Sam Beckett jumping into the body of Sherlock Holmes? If this is what insurance inspectors did on a regular basis, everyone would want to be one.

And that’s before we even get to the –

You hear the sound of a wet gurgle and something hitting the deck in a slithering motion. Oh dear. Let’s see what grim fate befell the author of this blog post!

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