This post spoils aspects of Return of the Obra Dinn, a ten- to fifteen-hour video game that I enjoyed very much, and which I would enthusiastically encourage you to play first.

The fate of Henry Evans and the other survivors makes for one of the best hidden-in-plain-sight puzzles I have ever seen.

You read its solution within the first moments of the game, part of the diegetic instructions on using the magic notebook — he even signs his full name to the goddamn thing. But this happens before the game teaches you the importance of paying attention to every detail it provides, doubly so where names are concerned. And so, all that text registers as merely flavorful mood-setting, forgotten as soon as you turn the page and start taking in the delicious infodump of maps and charts and sketches. (To say nothing of the titular boat waiting for you to board and dig into the blood ‘n’ guts you came for.)

I have no doubt that some players with stickier minds than mine skimmed the passenger manifest for the first time, saw that it contained a name that matched the previous page’s signature, and immediately thought “Well, I already know his fate, then.” But for the rest of us — which, I suspect, represent the majority of players — the information waits for us to rediscover it, quite probably during an idle re-read of the book’s first few pages while feeling stuck. What a delightful kick in the head!

My second-favorite discovery of the same flavor: finally noticing, on my second or third visit to the scene, the tiny silhouettes of the three poor souls plunging into the sea near the end of Part VII — just barely visible over the kraken’s swarming tentacles.

In the game’s “present”, and right from the start, you can see a strange, slowly rotating glint or sparkle on the horizon. The game never clarifies its meaning or purpose, other than passively inviting the player to — in time — draw a connection between it and the unearthly, circular glow cast by the Merfolk’s stolen conch in various memory-dioramas.

One friend, observing how the conch’s glow would even penetrate walls, interpreted it as very distant, originating in the Merfolk’s own lands, and assuring the player that the conch had returned to its home. I prefer to interpret the glow as rather closer, shining from the party of Merfolk who fulfilled their end of the bargain with the heroic Third Mate and drove the Obra Dinn back to England. You consequently spend the whole game under their observation, bearing the conch a mile or two out to sea, and making sure that you and your kind do not mean any further trouble to them.

Why can your character see the bizarre glow, though? Can everyone? If so, why doesn’t anyone comment on it? I wonder if it’s a second sight somehow conferred to you by the magic of Dr. Evans’s pocketwatch, unearthly technologies somehow all bound up together and resisting deep inquiry.

I do like how the doctor’s acquisition of the monkey’s paw implies that he knows how the pocketwatch works, which well of course he does, that makes sense, it’s his watch after all — except, wait, what? Did he just coincidentally happen to own a necromantic timepiece, perhaps as a family heirloom?

I prefer to think that he didn’t own the watch (or the book, with its own peculiarities) during the Obra Dinn’s misadventure. Instead, as a Man of Science, he only naturally knew of all the useful (if ontologically dicey) things one could accomplish with the pickled paw of a monkey who saw terrible things. He subsequently spends the next few years scouring Morocco for the hardware that eventually winds up in your hands — and, perhaps, also picking up a nasty wasting disease as just deserts for all his unnatural meddling.

But even if Dr. Evans is a Miévillesque brass-cog thaumaturge of some skill, and even if he did step right out of central casting as a waistcoated Victorian medical man, he rather is a bit rubbish at his name-plated job of ship’s doctor, yeah? I lost count of how many scenes begin with him saying some equivalent of “Right, then, let’s have a look at you” followed by his patient immediately expiring.

Then again, maybe a swift exit with no further lopped limbs or spilled entrails is rather just what you want from the ship’s doctor while on such a grim voyage…

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