Return of the Obra Dinn: A Lesson on Detective Games and Hands-Off Design

A YouTube creator I often like to watch is Mark Brown, who posts extremely insightful and well-produced videos about game design, and last year he put out a video about what makes a good detective video game. As I went back to watch it to research for this piece, I laughed when at the end he mentioned the genius behind the very game I was looking to write about, before the game had even officially come out.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the newest game from Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope, and I felt a lot of similarities between the two games when I started it up. The low-res graphics gave off a muted and distinct flair, and the design behind the games felt like it was focused on analyzing people and circumstances to understand the bigger picture. My suspicions were true, and I began to gain a real sense that Obra Dinn was the best detective game I’d ever played, and possibly the best one out there.

The core principles that Mark Brown pinpoints as important to a detective game are that the game stays out of the player’s way so that they can understand the answers and also the questions that need to be asked. Return of the Obra Dinn is almost as hands-off in its design as possible and it places a lot of trust in its players, but the game never leaves them in the dark and ends up leaving the player feeling satisfied and intelligent.

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