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.
WARNING: I am not going to spoil any deaths or any narrative aspects, but playing this game as blind as possible will benefit the player best, as at its core, Return of the Obra Dinn is a puzzle game. I highly recommend the game.
Return of the Obra Dinn places the player in the role of an unnamed insurance assessor in 1807 who is tasked with investigating a cargo ship that washed up without any of its 60-person crew left alive. In the player’s possession are only two tools to solve the mystery: a log book and a magical pocket watch. The book initially just contains a drawing of the entire crew, a list of crew names with roles and country of origin, a map of the ship, and a glossary for certain nautical terms. However, the remaining pages of the book are filled in as players explore the ship and discover bodies of the crew. The pocket watch is used whenever a body is found to teleport the player back to the last moment that body was alive. The last words that the victim heard are played, and then the player is transported into a small, frozen vignette of the death. The player is free to walk around this timeless scene and gather any information possible. When a victim’s death is found, their page in the log book’s chapters is filled out containing the body’s location on the ship map, a picture where any people who were in the scene are highlighted, and an area for the player to fill in the information about a death. That information includes their name, how they died, and, if they were murdered, who murdered them.
That’s all there really is to what the game gives. Names are not automatically connected to faces. The location of bodies are only marked after they’ve been found. In fact, I was pretty taken aback when I had found all there was for the game to show me, four hours in, with only around 15-20 of the crew’s fates confirmed. I actually went into the ending of the game because I thought there would be something that would explain all of this, but the game just ended and told me how disappointed it was that I didn’t finish the whole book.
This is the genius of Return of the Obra Dinn. It doesn’t hold the player’s hand and it puts its trust in them. After that devastating blow to my ego, I was forced to jump back into the game and take another look at everything. It’s very rare for the game to outright say someone’s name or role. Instead, the player has to really look deeper at the variety of sources they’re given. Following all of the scenes that a certain character is in is key to determining their identity; watching the jobs they perform and the people they are often with, as well as listening to accents and looking at facial features can really give the player a better angle for solving the mystery. And those methods are just slightly below the surface. My favorite solutions came from finding extremely small details that I had to think outside the box about.
I think something Lucas Pope did extraordinarily well was finding a great balance for the player between guiding and letting go. A crew member’s fate is divided into just 3 major parts, one of which (the death) is usually pretty easy to determine when in a vignette. A player can bookmark the scenes that a certain person is seen in, but the character’s location in the scene isn’t given. Most notably, a player’s deductions are only confirmed when three are correct and complete. This really forces the player to know what they’re putting into the log book without guessing, but it also keeps them on the right track and doubles as a way to say that something about another deduction is wrong. I never felt hopeless, but I also knew I couldn’t just brute force my way through.
Throwing it back to my original point about detective games, I think Return of the Obra Dinn does everything right to make a player feel like they’re really filling the role of a detective. Making a game like this is a lot of work, because accounting for so many options is an early sign of a pretty scopey game. However, there’s clearly been a lot of time spent on finding just the right amount of information to give to the player, because I never felt overwhelmed; I only felt like I wasn’t thinking in the right mindset. The fact that identities and deaths could be discovered in so many ways made every method of deduction viable and never narrowed my mindset into trying to find all identities through one method.
A lot of this freedom is felt because of the game’s nonlinear format. The player will be finding bodies out of the deaths’ chronology and will have to piece the story of the whole crew together, often in reverse order. I feel like if the game had forced me to linearly follow the story and figure out everything as I went like many detective games do, I would have either been guided into the answer, which isn’t as satisfying, or left with no way forward beyond a walkthrough. I never ended up super stuck on one scenario because I was able to hop over to another when I’d get frustrated.
So, with all of that said, I do have a few minor issues with the game. The fact that you have to walk to a body you’ve already discovered to enter the vignette again isn’t necessarily a problem, but having a sprint button would’ve made the traversal feel a bit snappier after I was just trying to follow a lead. I also disliked how one or two deaths were a bit tricky because some of the death keywords are so similar in connotation. Finally, the game’s ability to keep you from brute forcing it peters out towards the end of the game as the pool of remaining unsolved identities dwindles, but this was a necessary sacrifice in order for that satisfying structure early on to remain.
The major lessons to take away from this game that I see are that puzzle and mystery games thrive heavily when they stay out of the player’s way after giving them the minimum amount of direct information. There is no formula that can be taken from Return of the Obra Dinn as its balance was carefully tied to its design, but you can look at the game and see that there was a really fine line in how much help was given to the player and how much confidence was had in their success. I haven’t felt as smart and respected while playing a game since The Witness two years ago. Expect to hear more about my enjoyment of this game when the year comes to a close.