'Return of the Obra Dinn' Is a Beautiful Murder Mystery by the Creator of 'Papers, Please'

When a ghost ship washes up on England’s shore, it’s your job to figure out what happened to the 60 souls who died on it.
October 18, 2018, 6:47pm
A scene from the game Return of the Obra Dinn
Image: Return of the Obra Dinn

Hours into my investigation of the damned ship called the Obra Dinn, I walked through a grisly scene of charred bodies and felled eldritch monsters and went below decks.

There, where the crew slept, I watched a sick man cough his last, done in by some seaborne illness. As I turned to leave, a tattoo on a sleeping crewman caught my eye. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew his bunk assignment and checked it against the manifest to learn his name. This scene was a memory, and if I walked through more grotesque recollections of death and destruction, studying the forearms of the crew, I may just find the face that owns the tattoo. Then I’d be one step closer to solving the mystery of the Obra Dinn, and one step closer to disembarking from this cursed vessel.

This moment hit me about two hours into playing Return of the Obra Dinn, a new game from Lucas Pope, the creator of Papers, Please. The game is set in 1807, and a missing ship has drifted back to England’s shores. You play an insurance investigator tasked with discovering what happened to the crew—employees of the Dutch East Indies Company. It’s a simple set up, but Pope doesn’t make simple games. Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastic detective game, like playing a complex and detailed version of the investigation segments from The Witcher 3 or Batman: Arkham City.

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Return of the Obra Dinn is a first person adventure game. The player has no weapons, and only interacts with the ship by opening doors. To conduct your investigation, you have a memento mori in the form of a pocket watch that lets you view the final moments of the dead, and a book. The book contains several drawings of the crew, a manifest of everyone on board, and a very rough explanation of the horrors that took place on the ship with directions to some of the bodies. It’s up to you to fill in the rest.

The gameplay loop starts out simple: you board the ship and find evidence of carnage—a scrap of bloodied cloth, a skull, a cow skull—and use the pocket watch to enter a memory. When you figure out the nature of the death, you put it in your book. You need the name of the dead, what happened to them, and who (or what) did it to them.

Return of the Obra Dinn demands the player’s attention. Lines that seem like throwaway dialogue, the language or accent a character uses, and even the sound effects all give you key pieces of information that help you solve the mystery.

Late in the investigation, I found a scene where a man had been clubbed to death while three sailors were trying to board a lifeboat. The attacker called the victim a Dane, accused him of murdering his brother, then brought the club down on his head. The bystander screamed that the brother’s death had been an accident—he’d witnessed the whole thing.

So, I knew the dead man was a Dane. The crew manifest tracks the crew’s country of origin and there was only one man from Denmark. I had the man’s identity, and the method of his death, but I didn’t know who killed him. I remembered a scene that I’d witnessed earlier where a man had been crushed by cargo in an accident. I backtracked and sure enough, there was the Dane and the third man staring in horror as the cargo crushed the skull of the murderer’s brother. I looked at the manifest and found the only two crew with the same last name—I had identified the murderer and the man who died in the cargo accident.

There are 60 souls on the Obra Dinn’s manifest, and it can be hard to keep track of all of them. Thankfully, the game allows you to mark your progress during the investigation. Every time you correctly identify the fate of three passengers, the game lets you know you’re right and locks them in the book. It’s a slow build, but every three fates correctly guessed gets you one step closer to finishing the mystery.

Like Pope’s previous game, Return of the Obra Dinn filled me with a vague sense of unease and responsibility. In Papers, Please, you’re running a checkpoint in a fictional Eastern Bloc country. You have more work than you can handle, more paperwork than is necessary, and you have to cut corners and make judgement calls. Return of the Obra Dinn similarly allows the player to make difficult choices.

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Early on, the game gives you an out. With a paltry amount of the mystery solved, you can call it quits. You’ll finish the narrative and earn an ending, but you’ll never know what happened on the Obra Dinn. During one playthrough, I chose this option.

I got a ledger from the Dutch East Indies Company thanking me for my service and assigning monetary values to each of the fallen. If they were killers, their family got nothing. If they died in service to the company, the widows got a little something. All those lives I was responsible for, rendered down to a notation on a corporate spreadsheet.

After that, another knock came to the door. It was a letter from one of the survivors of the Obra Dinn, and it lets you know the full consequences for half-assing your job (which, I assure you, are crushing).

In the end, I wasn’t sure which hurt more: seeing cash value assigned to the dead or knowing that I couldn’t give a survivor the answers they needed. Ultimately, I had done enough for my employer, but I owed more to the dead.

I loaded an old save and promised to do better, no matter how long it took.

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