Game Review: Return of the Obra Dinn

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!

Return of the Obra Dinn
Last week in a nutshell.

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.

Obra Dinn notes
Just a tiny fraction of the copious notes I ended up making.

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.

Perfect August bank holiday weather…

…for me these days is the grey mizzle we have here in Newcastle today! I went out in it for a twenty-minute run and that was quite enough, thank you very much. I’m going to be spending the rest of the day on the sofa, both playing and making games 🙂

Cool, damp weather also makes me very excited for autumn. Two days to go!

Roadside bracken
Another picture from last Thursday’s run! This is the now-traditional ‘bracken at the side of the path’ picture that I take at the turning point of all my out-and-back long runs.

Flying Monday post

A fairly quiet week begins! I will mostly be game-making (which I will update you about next Monday) and game-playing, though I have a few ‘leaving the house’ activities scheduled such as my Thursday long run, a badly-needed haircut, and helping Geth pack up his office due to a building move at his work. Glad things are settling down.

Sweetheart Abbey
Abbey photo from last week’s trip! Might put a similar location in my new game…

Eyes on the autumn

Twelve days to go until meteorological autumn begins. I am very excited.

Things have been quite well timed this week. Geth and I returned home from the last of our summer trips away on Tuesday, and I finished the last items for the last of my big summer work projects on Wednesday. Work has been very busy over the spring and summer, which has been great, but it’s starting to quieten down again now. I’ll be taking the opportunity over the next few weeks to get a new game made and to have some downtime with my much-neglected videogame collection. I’m also in the sharp end of marathon training now, so I need to get some rest and relaxation in when I’m not running!

I’m finding it hard to get out of the ‘I should be doing something work-related right now’ guilt and letting myself relax, but that’s sort of understandable after so many months. I hope I’ll feel a bit more settled in a week’s time.

Mull of Galloway
So many pictures from our last trip! This is another one from the Mull of Galloway.

This week’s earworm playlists:

Saturday

S-Express – ‘Theme From S-Express’

Sunday

Grant Lee Buffalo – ‘The Whole Shebang’
Shoji Meguro – ‘Heretic Mansion’
Duran Duran and Chai – ‘More Joy’

Monday

Duran Duran – ‘Reach Up For The Sunrise’

Tuesday

The Crüxshadows – ‘Return’
Fleetwood Mac – ‘Don’t Stop’
Duran Duran and Chai – ‘More Joy’
The Corries – ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’

Wednesday

Peter Gabriel – ‘Games Without Frontiers’

Thursday

Duran Duran – ‘What Happens Tomorrow’
Duran Duran – ‘Invisible’

Friday

The B-52s – ‘Roam’

Gaming Wednesday!

With the summer work and trips all complete, I’m having a day off to play videogames before getting back to my projects. Looking forward to getting lost in some other worlds for the afternoon!

Mull of Galloway
A different kind of ‘other world’ visited at the weekend. The ones I’m visiting today aren’t real!

Home for a while

Geth and I are back in Newcastle after a few days spent at Mum and Dad’s holiday caravan in Dumfries and Galloway. It’s been lovely making the most of Geth’s summer leave to go zipping around visiting places for a few weeks, but I’m ready to settle down into the autumn routine at home now. I have lots of games to make (and play) and the final stages of a marathon training plan to complete.

Blog posts will gradually return to the normal schedule as a result!

Ailsa Craig from Girvan
So many photos from the last few days! This one is the view of Ailsa Craig from Girvan beach on Saturday. It was cloudy but atmospheric.

(Including the Tuesday pesto posts. From next week!)

Occasional normality

It’s been another busy week at work and I’m really glad it’s the weekend. Geth and I are going to parkrun tomorrow morning! It’s finally back in England for the first time since that strange weekend in March 2020, and I’m very excited to return. Our home parkrun has a new name (formerly Newcastle, now Town Moor due to several other parkruns now existing in Newcastle) and a new course and a mostly-new core team running it, so it’s a bit of a new era all round. It feels very strange that we can finally parkrun again after so many false starts, but it feels like the right time. I hope Scotland and Wales aren’t too far behind.

Other than that I’m going to be chilling out with videogames this weekend, both creating and playing. I have returned to Final Fantasy I this week so I’ll be spending some time with that! I’ve also still got a lot of ParserComp entries to get through before the voting deadline next weekend, and I’m really excited to get some coding done as well.

The weather is still hot and not conducive to long runs. I’ve moved my long run day to Thursday, both because of events happening later in the training programme (to be precise, due to COVID-induced race lag, the rescheduled GNR falls precisely three weeks before the rescheduled-rescheduled London Marathon, and in a marathon training programme you’re supposed to do your 22-miler three weeks before marathon day, and I’m not doing an extra nine miles before or after the GNR! …so I’ll do it on the Thursday and have a gentle plod round the dodgily-rerouted ‘GNR’ three days later, no racing it) and because mental health wise I need FULL WEEKENDS at the moment that are not completely taken up with running, so it’s best to squeeze the long run in on a weekday instead. My last two long runs have ended up being cut short due to heatwave collapse, so next week I’m going to grit my teeth and attempt an out-and-back in the hope that, by the time I’m struggling, I’ll already be ‘on my way home’ and so it’ll be mentally easier.

Lots of groups and classes from pre-pandemic life now inviting me back, but as I’ve always said, these things will need to happen very gradually for me as I don’t want to jump straight back into Constantly Doing Stuff. Ignoring the FOMO and doing my own thing for a while longer.

Weeping willow
My favourite tree in the garden. It looks great in the summer.

This week’s earworm playlists:

Saturday

Nobuo Uematsu – ‘Yuna’s Theme’
Crowded House – ‘Weather With You’
Don Henley – ‘Boys Of Summer’
Duran Duran – ‘Give It All Up’

Sunday

Nobuo Uematsu – ‘Cosmo Canyon’

Monday

Paul Weller – ‘You Do Something To Me’

Tuesday

Calvin Harris – ‘Summer’

And a bonus track Geth was humming that day:

Nobuo Uematsu – ‘To Zanarkand’

Wednesday

Therion – ‘Summer Night City’
Duran Duran – ‘To The Shore’

Thursday

Boston – ‘More Than A Feeling’
Levellers – ‘The Fear’
Duran Duran – ‘Shadows On Your Side’

Friday

Nobuo Uematsu – ‘Airship Theme’
John Waite – ‘Missing You’
Manami Kiyota – ‘Satorl Marsh (Night)’

Flying Monday post

No adventures in coding to report this week. I would like to have been playing with a few experimental games I want to make and working on my ongoing projects, but I’ve been snowed under with day job work and haven’t had the time or energy. Hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel by the end of the week!

Switch Lite
I also need to switch this thing on tonight and check it’s still okay, as I haven’t had time to use it for a few months now. Maybe I’ll actually have chance to play games on it one of these days!

Adventures In Coding: Downtime Post-Release

I know I’ve mentioned it once or twice already this week, but here’s another link to my latest game!

I had a really good time making Waiting for the Day Train once I let go of the hope that I could somehow finish Marie in time for the ParserComp deadline (having actually sat down and properly scheduled everything out, it will most definitely be going into one of the early 2022 competitions instead). I had fallen in love with the game idea when wandering around the beautiful vicinity of Causey Arch during Mum and Dad’s visit a few weeks ago, as I wanted to do a relaxing adventure accompanied by the photos I’d taken. In the end the adventure was not portrayed as relaxing – it’s a timed game, as the aim is to catch the last day train so that you can escape the night and its associated evil spirits forever… but there has to be some sense of danger in an adventure game!

Waiting for the Day Train

I really loved making the two themes for the game (there’s a day theme, for the playable part of the game, and a night theme for parts of the framing story). I’ve had some very nice feedback about it so far, which has given me a few ideas for future updates.

It’s going to be a fun few months as I have a lot of game ideas to play with. Marie is still trucking along in the background as well, in a slightly more sedate way than she was doing before.

For a week or two, though, I’m taking it easy and carving out some time to play all the other ParserComp entries!

Adventures In Coding: A Deadline Approaches

At the time of this post it’s fifty-four hours and twenty minutes until the deadline for ParserComp, which is the competition into which I’m putting my new small game. Very exciting! I’ve had some useful feedback from testers and so will be incorporating all of that into the game this evening. That gives me a forty-eight-hour ‘buffer zone’ in case anything breaks horribly. It shouldn’t, but you never know.

I’ve also been digging out a few other small projects that I’m excited about finishing over the next few weeks. I’ll still be working on my big game as well once the competition deadline is past, but at a much more sedate rate, so I’ll have time for side projects. Experimenting with several things at once (and no deadline pressure) is going to be a really nice way to spend my summer.

Wagon
This wagon picture isn’t in my game, but it did inspire an object!

Of course, I’m also excited about the best part of any competition/jam, which is getting to play everybody else’s games! I’ve already tested five of the other entries, but I’m really looking forward to playing the released versions as well as all the games I’ve not seen before. Thursday will be a good day 🙂