by Thomas Pulsifer
With the first journal for Games & Culture coming to a close, it’s time to gather my thoughts on the experience I’ve had with Return of the Obra Dinn as a whole. In this post, I’ll go over the visuals, the gameplay, the storytelling, and how these elements combine to form one of the most impactful games I’ve ever played.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Return of the Obra Dinn is its graphics and visuals. In this regard, the game is unlike any I’ve seen before. With 3D graphics that pay homage to the 1-bit games of the early Mac computer, creator Lucas Pope has created a visual style that truly stands out. Oftentimes, these graphics can make certain elements of the game difficult to discern, but I feel as though this lends itself extremely well to Obra Dinn. The game accounts for this by ensuring each character aboard the ship is distinct and memorable, both visually and narratively. Having some things be a bit harder to see also adds an extra layer of challenge to the game’s identity-solving gameplay.
Typically, gameplay is what I consider to be the most important aspect of a game. If a game can be told as a book or film without really losing anything, I oftentimes find it very uninteresting. However, despite having such a deceptively simple gameplay loop that essentially boils down to walking through 3D pictures, the act of exploring these dioramic memories to deduce identities is shockingly enthralling. When a set of identities have been correctly determined, its extremely satisfying. Though I tend to find myself enjoying games with more engaging movement, the simple act of exploring every little detail in the various different memories kept me hooked for hours.
Obra Dinn’s narrative is arguably its most important factor. Without it, you would have no way to figure out the identities of those on board and beat the game. This seamless fusion of story and gameplay is something many games have tried and failed to achieve, but Pope accomplishes it with finesse. To summarize it shortly, the story of Return of the Obra Dinn is told mostly in reverse and is observed through the perspective of an insurance inspector for the East India Company. You’re tasked with figuring out what exactly happened on the Obra Dinn, a cargo ship that mysteriously vanished five years ago, as well as the fates of its many passengers. Using the “Memento Mortem,” a mysterious stopwatch-like device, the inspector is able to see a snapshot of the moment someone died. Once the identities of each body are finally deduced, the story begins to piece itself together. The tale of the Obra Dinn sees the tragic events that occur following the discovery of powerful, corrupting, magical sea shells. When these shells are found in a mysterious chest aboard the ship, monstrous denizens of the briny depths attempt to take back what is rightfully theirs. This leads to a conflict that eventually results in the deaths of nearly every crewmate and passenger on board the vessel. The fact that such a compelling story could be told through nothing but audio and still 3D dioramas is mind-blowing, and it serves as an eye-opener for just how vast and exciting the possibilities of storytelling in the medium of video games are.
In our modern culture, many people play games for simple adrenaline rushes. They seek action — They want fast games that distract their brain and provide immediate satisfaction. Return of the Obra Dinn, however, takes a different approach. This is a slow, meticulous game. Determining the identities of each crewmate and passenger requires thinking and patience, something that many games nowadays often don’t demand very much of from a player. Return of the Obra Dinn is a rare game; One that combines the aspects of visuals, gameplay, and storytelling into one incredibly captivating experience from start to finish. To those who have never played it, I simply cannot recommend this game enough.