‘Return of the Obra Dinn’ reinvents the murder mystery game: Review

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Lucas Pope sure knows how to undersell his games — which, by all accounts, continue to push the limit of what we can expect from the medium.

The one-man powerhouse first exploded onto the scene with his wildly popular and morally existential bureaucratic puzzle game Papers, Please. Five years later, he’s released the equally undefinable Return of the Obra Dinn, described on his website as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.”

LOL — I guess that’s one way to put it!

Showing an unmatched skill for turning the most seemingly boring scenarios and basic mechanics into something ingenious, Pope’s new game is in a league of its own. 

You play as an insurance claims adjuster in the early 19th century. Brought to the merchant ship Obra Dinn (which summons similarities to the unsolved case of the Mary Celeste), you must figure out the specifics of the tragic mystery that left all its passengers either dead or missing.

Uncovering the story of their deaths does not happen chronologically, and the tidbits you get come in a jumbled freeze-frame. The full picture takes grueling detective work your part, with only two tools at your disposal: 1) a journal with a map of the ship, log of the crew, and artist rendering of them to help keep track; and 2) a pocket watch that summons the final moments of their horrific deaths.

Obra Dinn is more immediately gripping than the multi-million dollar blockbuster Red Dead Redemption 2

You gather evidence, and the journal fills up with the added clues that you must then make sense of yourself. And here’s what I mean about Obra Dinn being as inexplicably compelling as Papers, Please: Besides these slivers of unmoving violence, most of the game takes place in that journal.

Piecing together the facts in the midst of the chaos, you deduce who died and how (and, at times, by whose hand) in each flashback by flipping back between the action and your notebook. Describing it, you’d think that sounds like the most cumbersomely tedious game ever. Just like you might assume a game about being a border patrol officer stamping papers would be.

Instead, Obra Dinn is more immediately gripping than the multi-million dollar blockbuster Red Dead Redemption 2, a game which released only a week after and likely ruined its chances of getting much attention. But while Obra Dinn may have less money and gloss to it, it’s endlessly more successful at what it does while using far less than most games — and maybe that’s the secret.

There's an unnerving beauty to 'Return of the Obra Dinn's  1-bit art style

There’s an unnerving beauty to ‘Return of the Obra Dinn’s  1-bit art style

Pope has a masterful understanding of how to squeeze every ounce of potential out of a minimalist approach. He also uses everything that’s not there to further intrigue you. 

The brilliance of Obra Dinn lies in its expert withholding of information, doling out droplets of a non-chronological narrative told only in moments of suspended panic. It’s the key to every well-told mystery, and this game never lets up on that tension.

Flashbacks become tableaus you return to obsessively, desperate to restore some humanity to the rotting pile of bones their memories left behind.

Then there’s the aesthetic, a technical marvel of 1-bit noir. Yes, you read that correctly: This game is working with seven fewer bits than your original Gameboy. And unlike in most old-school-looking games, the 1-bit rendering of Obra Dinn is not simply arbitrary nostalgia. 

It adds more obfuscation to the already-mysterious atmosphere, heightening your panic as you try to make sense of these beautifully simplistic figures frozen in pain.

Also, like Papers, Please, Obra Dinn‘s odd art style forces players to see beyond a need for “realism” in games, and to establish empathy for caricature-like renderings of people. The flashbacks become tableaus you return to obsessively, desperate to restore some humanity to the rotting pile of bones their memories left behind.

The jarring contrast between life and death — between 3D people caught in a slaughter and their unknowing expressions in a photograph, the living tragedy versus the cold facts in your journal — lends an eeriness that you won’t find in any other murder mystery, video game or otherwise.

This photo in your journal only gets creepier the more story you uncover

This photo in your journal only gets creepier the more story you uncover

This is what the real potential of video game narratives looks like. 

The future of the medium does not lie solely in trying to replicate cinematic realism, despite what breathless coverage of triple-A games like Red Dead Redemption 2 might have you believe.

Obra Dinn demonstrates how the non-linearity of games possesses incredible yet under-explored possibilities. Its stylized look takes advantage of the awkward inhumanity of representing humans through pixels, instead of trying to fool the eye into thinking it’s watching a movie with more and more realistic mo-capping techniques.

I guess you could call Return of the Obra Dinn an “insurance adventure.” I guess you could call it a puzzle game. I guess its label of “indie game” will regrettably limit its reach. 

But a more accurate label for Return of the Obra Dinn is “one of the must-play video games of 2018.”

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