I spent five very intense evenings last week playing Return of the Obra Dinn, a game my brother Malcolm recommended to me about a year ago but I only got round to playing now. It’s an adventure game but not like anything I’ve ever played before. I have a lot of thoughts about it.
Spoilers follow – beware!
The game is set in the early 1800s. The missing ship Obra Dinn has drifted back to England and as the Chief Inspector of the East India Company, the player’s job is to investigate the abandoned ship and ascertain what happened. You are aided in this task by a mostly-blank book sent by a survivor from the ship and a magic pocketwatch that allows you to stand next to a corpse and enter the memory of the moment of death. Through this method, you gradually work out the fates of everyone on board and fill in the book accordingly.
First of all, I should say that the theme is really grim and uncomfortable. It may be an adventure game set on a sailing ship during the golden age of sea travel, but Monkey Island this is not – while there are supernatural elements, including the magic pocketwatch and the sea creatures that attack the ship during the course of the story, on the whole the setting is very realistic and thus fairly depressing. I got a bit upset whenever somebody was revealed to have died in a bog-standard accident such as falling from the rigging, because I had so many ancestors who died at sea in accidents. It’s certainly not a happy story.
The graphic style is based on the grainy black and white graphics of ’80s Mackintosh computers. While I do like this style more generally (there were some great text adventures released for the Apple II and it looks nice on those), I don’t feel it’s suited to a game where you have to zoom in on still pictures and try to work out what’s happening. There were several crew members for whom the cause of death (which needed to be logged in the book) required hours of frustrating guesswork, because it simply wasn’t possible to tell from the grainy graphics what had actually happened to them.
I did really appreciate the effort that went into making sure the dialogue was both period-appropriate and origin-appropriate, and finding voice actors of the correct nationality to voice all the characters. The only slight issue I had in this respect was the inconsistent listing of the names of the four female characters in the ship’s roster – one British character is listed with both her maiden and married surnames in the American style (so that the player will realise the link to both her husband and brother) and only one of the four is listed with a title. While I’m not an expert on East India Company passenger logs, I think title and surname would be the more likely style for referring to women by name during this period.
I spent twenty-six hours on this game, but only six of those hours were actually spent exploring the ship and interacting with the memories. The remaining twenty were spent with the sound off (I didn’t like the creepy music) and the book open, cross-referencing with the 5,000-word Evernote document on my phone in order to solve the giant puzzle of Who Is Everybody. In some ways I sort of don’t feel like this counted as actually playing the game, which is a really strange feeling to have.
During those five days, I found that the game was a complete obsession. I was up past midnight every night working systematically through the puzzle, and I couldn’t sleep at night because it devoured my thoughts. I ended up staying up extra late last Wednesday to solve the last few fates in the main puzzle, because I was due to do a long run on Thursday morning and did not want to be thinking about the game for three hours while I was out running!
Having accomplished this, I finished the final chapter on Thursday evening. This chapter is one that the survivor who sent the book and pocketwatch has kept hidden from the player, and so I was expecting it to contain more of a story twist than it did – it was a bit of an anticlimax. I felt there were also a lot of unanswered questions more generally, but that’s to be expected in a story told through snapshots.
I collected all but two achievements on Steam. I was sure I hadn’t missed anything, so I looked up the others. Both are what I would consider ‘troll achievements’, as in order to get them you have to end the game in non-ideal daft ways. I’m not such a completist that I’m going to do more playthroughs just to get those, so I am certain I will be letting them disappear into the ether, even if I find myself with a lot of free time at some point!
Indeed, I don’t believe I have ever felt so strongly about any other game I have ever played that I will NOT be replaying the game at any point in the future. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad game (far from it – it’s generally very well done) – it’s just that both the atmosphere of the game and the obsession I experienced really creeped me out. Overall, I’m just kind of relieved I finished it and don’t have to ruminate on it any more! It was a gaming trip that can best be described as ‘unsettling’, and to some extent I identify with this statement in the letter sent to the player character by one of the ship survivors during the final chapter:
As for the three of us that remain, the Obra Dinn is a distant memory and a dreadful chapter in our lives that we wish to forget. Do not write back.