Photograph of a square-rigged sailing ship with 'Atlantis' written on its stern, seeming to fade into a foggy backdrop.
“Ghost Ship Atlantis” by ziga-zaga (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn really hit the spot for me. I finished it in just under ten hours, spread over two days; each visit to the game felt like a little midday vacation, despite the mental stretching it involved. I can easily recommend it to anyone who likes their games to both demand and reward close attention and thorough investigation.

Obra Dinn applies a correct level of approachable kindness to an otherwise blood-curdlingly complicated logic puzzle. You must identify and catalogue the fates of sixty people who either perished on or vanished from a drifting ghost ship, by way of dozens of walk-through dioramas with attached scraps of dialogue and sound effects. Were it part of the MIT Mystery hunt, the game would just leave it there. Instead, as an entertainment for mere mortals like me, it informs you every time you have any three fates correctly filed, locking them into place and removing any further doubt about them. That gives you a nice sense of forward motion, crucial during the midgame where a sense of unmanageable chaos starts to really spiral outwards all around you.

Through this mechanism, if you feel quite certain about two not-yet-locked fates, you can afford to try out some guesses — educated, or otherwise — if you’re only halfway-sure about a third. This costs nothing, and only the drear of exponential-combination matrices prevent you from trying it beyond one or two variables. The very moment you key in a happens-to-be-correct combination, the game snaps it up and locks it away — assuming you were right about the other two fates, at least! I performed this trick throughout my playthrough with no shame, and let myself do just a little bit of multi-dimensional brute-forcing towards the end when only a handful of identities remained foggy. I didn’t feel any less deserving of my completion for it.

I found the nature of its audiovisuals an interesting sort of bait-and-switch. Its screenshots arrested me when I first saw them, looking for all the world like scenes from a forgotten Macintosh game circa 1990, all stark black-and-white outlines with masterfully applied stipple-shading. In motion, though, this effect drops away, revealing itself as a mere (if very technically clever) filter applied to the game’s camera. It reminded me of Bob Zimbinski’s hack from 20 years ago that let you play Quake in a text-only terminal window, through a not-dissimilar technique.

However, this suits the game, since your interaction with the world comes almost entirely through exploration of time-frozen moments, peering closely and methodically at every person and other detail provided. This intentionally low-information filter allows the game to minimize the level of said detail it provides to a certain level of coarseness, eliminating the need for complex object textures while still allowing motion through a three-dimensional (and often artificially constrained) space. I thought it worked fine.

But really, the game’s sound design that surprised and impressed me far more than its unusal graphical style. I won’t list out all the ways that the instrumental soundtrack intertwines and synchronizes itself with the visuals in one delightful way after another; you’ll discover them for yourself as soon as your own playthrough gets going. Suffice to say that Obra Dinn presents its tutorial information so unexpectedly jauntily that it sets a background mood of fun and discovery even as it proceeds to unspool a most hairy tale of extremely grim nautical doom. Pretty perfect.

Typically, objects in a 3D adventure game are either passive set-dressing, or keys — in whatever shape — for which you must find the right locks. I can’t recall the last time that so many little details of a 3D world proved relevant, with all the unlocking happening only in my own head (and assisted with a real-wold notebook). Refreshingly inside-out, your character carries the sole in-game “lock” with her at all times — the manifest of the ship’s sixty lost passengers and crew, a blank space next to each to record their fate. Once you’ve seen all the dioramas at least once, the game frees you to start keying in answers in any order you choose, and really does leave it wholly up to you how to go about it.

There are multiple “break-in” points that will soften up whole sections of the over-arching logic puzzle, but you need to find these on your own, and choose which to dig into first. This feels, pleasantly, like a crossword puzzle, as does the fact that solving any of it makes the remainder easier, as you slowly spread order and meaning across an initially blank chaos. You revisit the same scenes repeatedly and on your own schedule, each time returning with updated context and a changed perspective while you gradually work out how everything fits. The content of these dioramas never changes on repeat visits, but the way you see them often does just the same — and that feels pretty magical, and very cool.

If that sounds even a little fun to you, then you should try this game.

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Spoilerific thoughts on Obra Dinn

A followup collection of thoughts about _Return of the Obra Dinn_, containing spoilers aplenty.

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