Obra Dinn is maybe my favorite game of 2018. I played it with my partner over a week, switching off the controller as one and then the other of us took notes. It was fun, brilliant, gorgeous to look at, and I can’t stop hearing it’s little musical stings even when I’m outside of the game. The whole time I was playing it I couldn’t stop thinking not just “This is good” but also “You could do this with anything”. The format of Obra Dinn seems like it represents a new way to create puzzle games, drawing something from the old Sherlock model of “observe-deduce-input” and something from the Her Story model of “go at your own pace and angle”.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is a game by Lucas Pope, who you may remember from immigration-in-a-soviet-dystopia simulator Papers, Please. You take the role of an insurance adjuster for the East India Company and are delivered onto a ghost ship that has been discovered without a living soul left on board. You have a crew manifest, a few sketches of the people who lived and worked on this vessel, and a book someone was writing about them that is mostly blank. You also have a magic deathshead watch that allows you to see the final moment of a person’s life, frozen in time. Your task, then, is not merely to ascertain what happened to the ship as a whole but what happened to each person. How did they die? Who was responsible? What method was used? The game prompts you for these questions for each passenger, their stories grouped in chapters and smaller events. Each chain of murder and woe leads you dizzyingly back to blacker and blacker moments, helping you to understand how things came to this sorry state.
Part of the reason Obra Dinn works so effectively is it’s location and setting. It’s an intricate puzzle box for you to solve, and this doesn’t feel narratively stale, like in a modern detective game when you aren’t allowed to leave the proscribed bounds of the route, or talk to other people. Everything in and on the ship is possible evidence, and it’s all there for you to explore. While a ship at sea in the pre-digital age is naturally a perfect vehicle for this kind of isolation, you could build a puzzle box like this in any number of settings. A small apartment building, a medical complex, a village. Using the framing narrative of “something happened here, no one is left, solve it” is not new in games, but it feels new when used this way.
Games like Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture similarly give you a proscribed area and ask you to explore them, but they lack the focus you achieve when trying to finish specific goals. The overall goal loses immediacy as you rummage through cottage after cottage. Obra Dinn might largely a “walking sim” but because it’s asking you to glean information from your surroundings to solve challenges, you become hyper-aware and vigilant. You want to solve what happened on the boat but you put it to one side time and again just to figure out the next room, the next blood stain. In many games in this genre the opposite happens, where the longer you spend pacing the area the more you come to notice the seams. The longer you wander an empty area without interacting, the more you may wonder what you are doing there. What a fantastic marriage then to give you a mostly non-interactive, lovingly crafted, world to explore and task you with noticing everything that has been built in it for both mechanical and narrative rewards.
Obviously there are hurdles to creating more of this type of game, chief among them being complexity and balance. The complexity of Obra Dinn, it’s many interlocking stories and types of evidence, is hard to overstate. I almost never felt that there was only one way to solve a puzzle and often, in backtracking to find a new clue I would notice something that could have been an alternate solution to chapters ago that I had missed. Something I’d solved by process of elimination someone else might have solved by noticing a wedding ring. A surname or a bunkmate, someone’s beard or someone’s boots, you find more and more connections the further you go. As for balance, this must be one of the only puzzle games I can remember in ages where virtually no one I’ve spoken to has given up in frustration or had to resort to walkthroughs. Everyone seems to report some sticking at points, followed by rushes of insight. This must represent a colossal amount of balancing and tweaking on Lucas Pope’s part, and must surely prove hard to replicate.
It’s my dearest hope that we see more games like this in the future. What settings do you think would work for them? What time periods? And how cool would it be to imagine doing this in other videogame worlds, tracing your way through a manor in Dishonored, for example, or the DOOM base on Mars? How’d all these scientists get chainsaw-ed? It’s time for the insurance adjustor to find out!