Mini game review: Return of the Obra Dinn

Recently I played Return of the Obra Dinn (2018), an indie video game which bills itself as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.” I’ve been playing so many (short) games lately that I can’t take the time to properly review them all, but I wanted to collect my Facebook musings about each game in one central place.

First, let me steal this description of the game from Wikipedia:

The game is set in 1807 with the player assuming the role of insurance inspector for the East India Company. The Obra Dinn, a merchant ship missing for five years, has reappeared off the coast of England with no one alive aboard. The player is dispatched to the ghost ship to perform an appraisal, reconstruct the events of the voyage, and determine the fates of all sixty souls aboard, providing a cause of death for those deceased or a probable current location for those presumed living. Investigation is accomplished through the use of the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch capable of transporting its user to the moment of death of any corpse located. The game, played in first-person perspective, uses a “1-bit” monochromatic graphical style inspired by games on early Macintosh computers.

“Return of the Obra Dinn” on Wikipedia

And here’s what I had to say about…

From June 29, 2022:

I just started playing Return of the Obra Dinn last night, the… new-ish? new-er? game by Lucas Pope, who did Papers, Please.

As usual with his games, I don’t really know how to describe them? It’s a puzzle game, I guess? You have to discover the fates (mostly, deaths) of the 60 people on board the Obra Dinn, using a magical stopwatch that shows memories of the person’s life. It’s mostly a deductive reasoning problem, but a SUPER COMPLEX one.

It’s hard! So far I’ve only solved 6 of the fates after 3hrs or so of play. It requires some careful observation skills — like: what is that accent? What part of the ship are they in? How do other people address them? How are they dressed? What manifest number is on their hammock?

Also love the early Macintosh-era graphics.

Additional things I wrote in the comments:

Since I’m bad with faces, I enjoy giving [the passengers] dumb names based on their appearance in the Life at Sea drawings. “Kicky neckerchief guy,” “tuque guy,” “tattoo guy,” etc.

I watched… an interesting video [Ars’ Technica’s “How Localizing Return of the Obra Dinn nearly sunk the game”] about how [the developers] decided on the different verbs [for what happened to the passengers], and how it made additional challenges when they translated it. (Like… some languages don’t have a verb that corresponds to “killed with a club”).

Additional notes:

  • You can actually pick what version of early computer graphics you want! I stayed with the early Mac era graphics, because it brought back memories of playing Oregon Trail on my Mac SE with a whopping 20mb of hard drive space.
  • The game is fairly lenient as to manner of death, disappearance. In many cases it will accept multiple different causes, such as “speared” “spiked” “bitten,” etc.
  • I feel like having toured the HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship, in Portsmouth, UK, really prepared me for some of these puzzles. (Like… of course all the midshipmen hang around together! Or: what’s an orlop deck?)

From July 2, 2022:

Okay, folks who have played Obra Dinn: when are you supposed to leave the ship? Because (I think) I’ve uncovered all the memories I can except for the stuff in “The Bargain,” which explicitly says “this will be revealed once you leave the ship and turn in the book.” I’ve only uncovered 36 fates, though, and I thought you weren’t supposed to leave the ship until you solved all 60. But I’m already scraping the bottom of the barrel for clues, and I have no more memories (I think) to uncover on the ship, so I’m wondering if I’ve misunderstood something.

As a friend informed me in the comments, you do have to solve 58 out of the 60 fates before you leave the ship if you want the “good” ending, i.e. where you actually figure out what happened.

By this point it was some of the tricksiest puzzles that stumped me. Looking up videos about all the clues in the game, it seems I wasn’t the only one struggling to identify the Chinese topmen, or to tell Alexander Booth apart from Hamadou Diom. There were definitely a couple of places where I had to guess, or brute force the solution. The “fates are revealed in groups of three” mechanic does disincentivize guessing, though, which was both a blessing and a curse.

From July 3rd:

Also, apropos of Obra Dinn — good goddamn I love the music in Soldiers of the Sea. Those bells! It gives me shivers.

Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation, who is known for his scathing reviews, actually liked Obra Dinn — but he did not like the music. He is just wrong.

On the same post I commented:

And apparently Lucas Pope composed [the music], too? This man is too talented.

Later that day I wrote this:

I finished Obra Dinn!… I still have so many questions.

For all that I solved the game — discovering the fate of all 60 passengers on board — at the end I still felt like I didn’t really understand the throughline of the story. Of why things had happened, and why the ship seemed to be cursed.

I won’t copy over all spoilery questions I had, but I answered a lot of them by Googling “return of the obra dinn story” and finding this. Warning: wildly spoilery. I’d only suggest following that link if you, like me, got to the end and still had a ton of questions about the plotline.

Also, fwiw, Steam informs me that it took me around 19hrs to finish the game. These Sudoku experts playing Obra Dinn on YT put me to shame.

Final Verdict

I adored much of this game — the music, the writing, the voice acting, the stylized graphics, and of course, the puzzles. Despite my confusion about the individual details of the story, the emotional impact was always clear. You could tell it was a passion project for Lucas Pope, and that he took the time to make it just so.

All that said, one thing I didn’t love was the user interface. The game gives you no guidance as to the controls; you just sort of have to discover them organically. (Don’t ask me how long it took me to figure out I could zoom in on figures to match them to their picture in the “Life at Sea” drawings). Navigating between scenes seemed clunky; I’d love a way to pull up a scene from the logbook rather than having to go to the body in question. I also wish there was a way to replay a scene from the beginning while you’re in it.

All in all, I’d give it a 4 out of 5 stars.

The only bad thing is? Now I’m in the mood for puzzle games, but there’s nothing quite like Obra Dinn. There are many puzzle games, but after surveying my friends, we couldn’t come up with one that had the same blend of logic puzzle + story-driven + unique aesthetics.

That said, I dove into a few other puzzle games after that, and — dopamine willing! — I might say a few words about them later.

Author: Lise

Hi, I'm Lise Fracalossi, a web developer and writer. I live in Central Massachusetts with my husband, three Maine coon cats, and a collection of ridiculous hats.