Characters and Character Development: 7
Aesthetics and Style: 6
Spoilers: Yes (you might want to heed the warning this time)
Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: BOATS!
Games are not known for their storytelling capabilities, which is a shame because they can be the best medium for telling certain stories. A narrative is told on the facets of its medium, with novels using fewer facets than graphic novels, graphic novels using fewer facets than films, films using fewer facets than television, and so forth. The number of facets does not itself determine the quality of the story being told, but merely its potential complexity. One of the difficulties of telling stories in video games is that they have far more facets than most common narrative media, incorporating world, interactivity, and mechanical components, all of which can be used to tell a story. Because of the number of components and the sheer cost of ensuring each one contributes to a cohesive story, most games opt for a simple story, with fun mechanics being the core of the game. Unless, of course, the story and the mechanics are the same thing.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a narrative game in the way few others are. Rather than split the story between text or cutscenes, following and understanding the story makes up most of the gameplay. Players are presented a mystery – a British ship, the Obra Dinn, has returned after months at sea with all its remaining crew dead. An investigator (you) is sent aboard to figure out who all is dead, how they died, and who was responsible. You have a magical pocket watch that will play a recording of the few seconds before that character died, then show you a still screen of that exact moment. You explore the scene like a three-dimensional still life, observing details and trying to connect the actions in that moment of death to the other moments of death you have seen already. Time gaps between deaths may be seconds, or they may be weeks, and if a body isn’t available, its moment of death will be unavailable.
As you go along, you record notes in a book and find links between the scenes to figure out the identities of the characters and their ultimate fates. The relatively low resolution of the game makes recognizing faces difficult (though that also might just have been my experience), so you have to rely on all available context clues and process of elimination to deduce the information you need to figure out what happened. Some of these clues are obvious — characters shouting names before a death are the clearest way to figure out who someone is, and the game is well aware of this. On the rare occasion when a character does shout a name, they may give nicknames, partial names, or be unclear about who, precisely, they’re talking to. A list of those aboard the ship and a reference photo can help you keep identities straight as the characters never change their outfits, but you’ll need to use context clues and any additional information the game provides in order to track the paths of each of the sixty characters. All of the characters can be determined systematically with a few through process of elimination, and more can be identified through logical deduction and guesswork, to varying degrees of difficulty. Some characters have multiple clues pointing to their identities, while others less central to the action may only have a single clue connecting their name to their face.
The game is effective for a number of reasons. As with many puzzles, its engagement is partially dependent upon the pace at which you can both find and complete the required tasks. The game occasionally falters in slow scene transitions, the constant flipping between pages of the book, but the only real pace-killer I found were the lights within the still scenes that locate new bodies, which wander all around the ship before pointing you where to go and stop moving when you’re not looking at them. You do not run into walls within the puzzles themselves until late in the game, and even then, there are only a few points where locating a stray bone or exploring an odd room is the only way forward. These moments act like bottlenecks where players cannot discover new material until they find a key clue, but for the most part, they don’t hinder gameplay. They actually appear to be in place to control the amount of information players can access at once; locked doors unlock after you find a scene in which they are open, so players will tend to keep finding bodies until they can’t easily find any more. This is a good point to go back and fill in information in the book, determining identities where possible and studying the details in the scenes. When players get stuck when trying to figure out the scenes they have, they can readily switch back to looking for bodies around the ship.
The progression of the game is a good blend of open exploration and rigid structure. The underlying story never changes and most players will encounter it in roughly the same order, one body leading to another in a predictable manner. Players start on the top deck outside of the captain’s cabin with only one body available, and the game continues in a linear fashion from there. However, on my second playthrough, I was astonished at how many details I missed the first time, how certain characters became more vivid or important, and how my interpretation of scenes changed depending on the order in which I viewed them. With much of the story left to conjecture, it’s easy to let your imagination fill the available space.
And here’s the point where I’m going to do something odd and encourage you to play the game before I give away specifics. I like spoilers. I generally think that media is more engaging if you have a glimpse at its juicy bits, especially if it doesn’t seem like something that would interest you otherwise. I’ve saved myself plenty of strife and found series I wouldn’t have taken up by actively seeking out spoilers. For this game, though, I had to stop about ten minutes into a Let’s Play and buy it so I could experience it for myself. I knew it would be my thing, and I wanted to see it with fresh eyes. If you’re the sort of weirdo like me who normally likes spoilers and this game intrigues you, go into it unspoiled. I don’t say that about a lot of things, but this one has many ah-ha moments and I think they’re worth finding for yourself.
For the rest of you who’ve made it this far, let’s dive into that story.
Part Two: An Unfortunate Dearth of Cannibals
The story of the Obra Dinn is told out of order, as many good mysteries are. It’s arranged in chapters that skip around, gradually taking the player back in time in the story. After about the midpoint, it starts to skip around between the early and late parts of the ship’s voyage, due to a middle chapter left intentionally blank by the man who gives your character the book where you record fates. Upon arriving at the ship, you discover several men dead, victims of the captain in the aftermath of some horrific event. The motivations are unclear — there’s talk of shells, which all parties seem to think are important, but what would bring them all to lethal blows remains unclear. The crew members break into the captain’s cabin in an attempted mutiny, and he slaughters them one by one. Has the captain gone mad? Or is it the crew?
The cabin opens up as you go through the scenes, slowly revealing that the captain was the last person alive on the ship and he lost his wife during the chapter simply titled “The Doom.” When you delve into her moment of death, the mystery deepens. As it turns out, the captain’s wife was killed by falling rigging felled by a kraken. Now the game has a supernatural element in more than its mechanics. The kraken and the frenzy of the ship in the midst of the storm is beautiful and terrifying, and the stillness of the scene makes it all the more impressive. Waves are used to block off the explorable area, which is good because the number of people and bodies makes the scene difficult to take in at first. As you start to make sense of what you can, you learn about the immediate aftermath of the kraken attack and the high tensions on the ship. Some of the passengers caught up in the ship’s apparent curse tried to escape, getting their hands bloody in the process, while others sought to mutiny against the captain, whom they blamed for the attack.
From here, the story dips between peaceful moments (or as peaceful as they can be, given someone dies in each of them) of the ship early in its voyage and other fraught escapades preceding the kraken attack. The kraken wasn’t the only creature to attack the ship, as they were also beset by enormous crabs and spine-tailed fish monsters at different points in the voyage. We eventually learn that the monsters are all connected by magical shells brought aboard by royal Formosan passengers. Early in the voyage, the second mate discovered these shells and sought to steal them and kidnap the Formosans. In the process, they were attacked by mermaids drawn to the shells, which apparently have magical capabilities. After stunning the mermaids, the crew brought them aboard and stored them (alive) in the lazarette, which remains locked through most of the game.
From here, a new story starts to emerge — one of sea creatures trying to retrieve a magical artifact of theirs, only to be captured by the crew of the Obra Dinn, most of whom seem eager to sell or eat them. The crabs who arrive go after the lazarette — not an attack per se, but a rescue mission. A close look reveals figures sitting atop the spider crabs, humanoid creatures obscured by their seaweed cloaks. The crab-riders and their mounts are killed, but soon after, a kraken appears, intent on sinking the ship.
The hidden final chapter, while probably not the unexpected twist anticipated by much of the audience, puts the creatures fully into perspective. We see into the lazarette, where we know by that point the mermaids have been stored. The captain barges in, demanding that they call off the kraken, murdering two of the three mermaids gruesomely in a fit of rage. A few level-headed survivors realize the captain’s mistake — that it wasn’t the mermaids but the captain’s steward, also trapped in the lazarette, who called the kraken while searching the case that contained the shell. The third mate gives the shell to the remaining mermaid and begs the creature call off the kraken. It does.
The story is one with a basic moral about not being greedy and about appearances being deceiving. The ending is somewhat unremarkable, the detail that Dahl summoned the kraken an easy one to miss. However, the realization that the creatures are victims, while somewhat predictable, is a thought-provoking one. It puts everything that came before in a new context, and it’s the sort of perspective that makes you look at the game in a new way.
Of course, it’s less the plot that encourages you to do this than it is the gameplay itself.
Part Three: The Unfolding Story
I’ve played through this game multiple times and still don’t quite know why the captain ended up fighting his own crew members to the death. That’s one of the weaknesses of the game’s story format, which focuses each chapter around particular events as opposed to the buildup that informed them. Because the point of the game is to fill in identities retrospectively, motivations and reasoning are frequently unclear.
The game makes up for this in character personality. The glimpses you get at the characters through snippets of dialogue hold true for much of the story, to the point where you can almost expect certain people to appear in certain situations. Take the first few people you see in that initial chapter. The captain is a violent man, quick to anger and willing to execute his own men when he deems it necessary. The second mate who tries to confront him is not the most compassionate officer, but he’s also not the skeeziest. One of the seamen who helped the second mate try to break into the captain’s cabin appears throughout the rest of the story. We know little about him and he only ever speaks once if at all, but we’re inclined to trust his perspective more since we see him everywhere during the combat scenarios and just generally helping the officers during crises. However, like the captain, he seems brash, racking up a higher body count than almost any of the other sailors.
The most interesting of the first four figures is probably the man who doesn’t enter the cabin through the door as the rest of the sailors do, but rather jumps over the back of the ship and onto the balcony like some sort of parkour expert. Aside from being objectively cool, this character also appears regularly throughout the game, usually alongside others who dress like pirates and climb on things. These are the topmen, and even though barely any of them says a word, they’re among the most fleshed-out characters in the game. The book informs us that topmen are higher-ranking sailors, more seasoned than the regular sailors and on their way to becoming officers, despite not necessarily looking the part. They dress in looser clothes, sometimes forgoing shirts entirely, as they’re usually up on the rigging doing the dangerous work of keeping the sails in shape. The topmen are often recognizable because of their attire, their positions on the rigging (they are the only ones ever on it), and their tendency to hang out as a group. They’re all together in the group illustration, implying they all have close relationships. This is further reflected throughout the scenes, with the topmen coming to each other’s aid and even seeming to grieve when one of them dies. One topman can be seen dragging the body of one of the others in the middle of a combat scenario when all other bodies have been left where they fell. The closeness of the topmen reflects their dangerous line of work and status as seasoned sailors intimately familiar with the ship. That’s solid character work considering you’ll go through most of the game with no idea what their names are.
The deaths of the crewmates are tallied both in the flashbacks and watcher bodies remain on the ship. Those lost at sea or disposed of between other deaths are not recorded, but the player is encouraged to use other clues to figure out what happened to them. For instance, just prior to the kraken attack, several crew members attempted to escape in a row boat. Fates include the potential for escapees to still be alive, so I imagined they survived and were on a nearby island, or else had perished at sea. Only on my second playthrough did I notice the boat being flung into the air during the kraken attack. Not so lucky, then.
While trying to figure out the unknown deaths, I quickly realized that the game had far more options for fates than actually occurred over the course of the story. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because it’s more engaging than just clicking “drowned” for every death and also avoids the text game folly of not realizing a particular action is possible. On the other hand, looking at the list of possible fates and specifications for each implies exciting things like hoofed and winged beasts, warfare, extreme weather, and cannibalism — none of which are actually in the game. Try as you might to convince the game (and boy did I), it will not accept “the doctor ate all of the other passengers in his row boat” as a correct solution.
However, the overall impetus for the game and its method of delivery fit together well enough to make the game feel unique. The elements core to the experience can be found in other puzzle and detective games, but this one manages to blend the story with the aesthetics and mechanics to a degree rarely found in video games. The art style looks gorgeous but also ensures elements meant to be clear are readily visible and elements meant to be uncertain (namely faces) are difficult to suss out. View distance is low for any one scene, which makes the game more manageable, and frequently more difficult. I wouldn’t say this is an exceptionally challenging game as it’s far more lenient than most puzzle games of the sort, but it manages a good balance of difficulty to pacing. You don’t often get flat-out stuck, and that’s essential for the story.
The game is imperfect. All games are in some way or another, but the flaws in this one stand out more than usual. There isn’t a part of this game that isn’t at least a little bit polished (simple games can afford that), but some bits get more attention than others. I can’t help but feel small trip-ups like the slow transitions, repetitive deaths, or even just missed opportunities in creating more depth for the minor characters, hinder the game. It’s not enough to sour the experience by any means. It does leave room for improvement, though.
Return of the Obra Dinn sets up a creative template for the sort of morally complex, character-driven story that games have frequently struggled to deliver. It does a lot with this template. It also leaves me wanting more. I want to know the personal stories of a smaller number of figures, more specific information about their lives and relationships, as well as their deaths. I want to see more of the banter and games on the ship, how the characters react to each other in combat, how they deal with the loss of friends. I’m reminded of the many characters and subplots happening around the camp in Psychonauts, and I start to yearn for a game that takes elements of the Return of the Obra Dinn‘s detail-oriented approach to storytelling and incorporates them into a different format of game.
Imagine character-based storytelling in more open-world games. What if the regular routine of NPCs could be recorded and observed as part of an ongoing subplot independent of a prompted quest? Many RPGs already do something like this, like how the player can encounter Cicero on the road to the Dark Brotherhood sanctuary in Skyrim before starting that questline. Why not take it further?
Imagine stealth games that allow the player to keep track of all of the figures involved and information gleaned through exploring their rooms. What if all those random collectibles could be used for story purposes, allowing the player to better understand the other characters in the game not just through interaction, but through snooping? Why not make that an integral part to interaction, allowing more dialogue paths to open up when the player arranges their notes in a particular way.
Why not add more classic adventure game mechanics to other genres? Why not look for ways to make puzzles more than just obstacles to overcome, but intrinsic story rewards? We need more conceptual games that play with our ability to process and organize information. Those sorts of skills are explored in almost every medium, but games tend to fall short. We need better than L.A. Noire‘s limp attempt to hide its linear story, and more than games frequently interrupted with cutscenes. Interactivity is ripe for storytelling potential. And now we have a example of a beautiful example of just that.
Return of the Obra Dinn is impressive and easily worth playing on its own. It is my sincerest hope, though, that it is remembered as the catalyst for a whole new genre.