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.

Music Review: Now! That’s What I Call Music #1

You might be aware that the Now! That’s What I Call Music compilation album series will be releasing its 100th edition on 20th July this year.  I’ve got a huge soft spot for the series, largely because my parents bought the vinyl release of Now! That’s What I Call Music #10 in 1987 and it basically shaped my music taste, but also because it was such a big thing when I was growing up in the ’90s – at school and at parties, someone always had a Now! album kicking about.  I’m surprised in some ways that the series is still going strong in the age of streaming, but it is, which is nice and nostalgic for me.

To celebrate the upcoming 100th edition, I’m going to review every single Now! compilation – one per day between today and 20th July – starting, obviously, with #1, which came out on 28th November 1983.

(When I say ‘review’, I of course mean ‘burble about anything that comes to mind about these particular tracks’.  Just clarifying that in case you thought this was going to be in any way musically technical!)

Let’s get started, shall we?

Now That's What I Call Music #1

Track 1: Phil Collins – You Can’t Hurry Love

’80s-era solo Phil Collins, especially poppy, bouncy nonsense like this, is very much what I consider a ‘guilty pleasure’.  A few ciders and I will always be up dancing to this one at weddings.

Track 2: Duran Duran – Is There Something I Should Know?

I love Duran Duran, and this one’s a cracker, especially the constant backing vocals.  The lyrics are great too:

And fiery demons all dance when you walk through that door
Don’t say you’re easy on me, you’re about as easy as a nuclear war

People just don’t write songs like this nowadays (waves stick in air).

Track 3: UB40 – Red Red Wine

Another ‘I’d dance to this one at a wedding’ track.  There may be a theme emerging.  Cheesy, but in a pleasant, head-nodding way.

Track 4: Limahl – Only For Love

I wasn’t familiar with this one, which is unusual for me with ’80s pop songs.  I do like the epic nature of the bridge, and the song gets better as it goes on, but I probably wouldn’t add it to my Spotify playlist.

Track 5: Heaven 17 – Temptation

A favourite!  I defy anyone not to chant along with the ‘temp-tation‘ bits.  Incidentally, if you ask Geth to DJ your wedding, you’ll inevitably hear this one.

Track 6: KC & The Sunshine Band – Give It Up

Bit cheesy even for me, this one, but I do like the instrumental bits.

Track 7: Malcolm McLaren – Double Dutch

Another one I didn’t know.  I’m not keen on the sampling mishmash at the start, but I quite like the idea of an ode to skipping ropes.  It’s the kind of whimsy that’s mostly missing from music today.

Track 8: Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse Of The Heart

One for singing along to at the top of your voice when you’re absolutely certain nobody else can hear you (this is a pleasure that was denied to me for quite a few years until I moved into a detached house last month).

Track 9: Culture Club – Karma Chameleon

Not my favourite Culture Club song, but I have fond memories of my friend Laura and I writing notes to each other in our homework diaries in high school, arguing about the correct lyrics to this song (she thought it was ‘if you were the colour of my dreams‘, rather than ‘if your colours were like my dreams‘).  These things were extremely important.

Track 10: Men Without Hats – The Safety Dance

I make no apologies for adoring this one.  I also point you to this wonderful meme, which Geth likes to use for complaining purposes whenever we hear it in a goth club.

Track 11: Kajagoogoo – Too Shy

Daft song, but it’s still better than all of Limahl’s solo stuff except for Neverending Story.

Track 12: Mike Oldfield – Moonlight Shadow

I love this one – it’s epic and beautiful.  It was also used to really good effect in the ’80s edition of The Doctor Who Years, which is sadly no longer available to watch.

Track 13: Men At Work – Down Under

Wonderfully silly party song that always reminds me of an Australian guy called Ben that I used to work with circa 2002.  In the pub post-shift, this was his song.

Track 14: Rock Steady Crew – (Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew

I can’t listen to this one without being reminded of its use in Peter Kay’s brilliant Britain’s Got The Pop Factor parody in 2008 (and I can’t believe that show is nearly a decade old already).  The song itself is pretty nonsensical, but I quite like the synth line.

Track 15: Rod Stewart – Baby Jane

Actually my favourite Rod Stewart song, just edging out Maggie May.  I love the instrumentals (especially that sax solo!), the lyrics, the epic nature, everything.

Track 16: Paul Young – Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)

To be honest, though I usually like Paul Young, I find this one a bit dull, so I think it was a poor choice for ending disc one of the album.

Track 17: New Edition – Candy Girl

Never been a fan of New Edition or this song, largely because I have an aversion to squeaky kid voices, especially squeaky kid voices singing love songs.  Let’s move on.

Track 18: Kajagoogoo – Big Apple

Please take a moment to envisage my raised eyebrow here, as I was always taught when learning to DJ that repeating an artist in a setlist (or compilation album, in this case) is lazy, unimaginative and generally Not Done.  Give another artist a chance to be heard!

As for the song itself…it’s nice bouncy ’80s pop with cute little bursts of saxophone, but nothing hugely special.

Track 19: Tina Turner – Let’s Stay Together

Boring slow intro and verses, but good ‘chair-dancer’ once the chorus gets going.

Track 20: The Human League – (Keep Feeling) Fascination

Typical upbeat Human League stuff for this era.  Not my all-time favourite of theirs, but perfectly catchy and pleasant.

Track 21: Howard Jones –  New Song

I didn’t really get into Howard Jones until about a year ago, when Vintage TV started playing his stuff a lot.  This one’s a nice bouncy, catchy number with a great synth instrumental bit.  Big fan of this.

Track 22: UB40 – Please Don’t Make Me Cry

More repetition of artists (sigh).  If they were determined to do that, they should have saved Red Red Wine for side two, as it’s a much better song than this one.  Slow, downbeat, nice sax solo but generally a bit dull.

Track 23: Peabo Bryson and Roberta Flack – Tonight, I Celebrate My Love

The kind of appallingly saccharine ballad that I would have hated if I’d been an adult listening to it in 1983, but from my lofty perch of hindsight in 2018 I can just put it into a box marked ‘charmingly of its time’.

Track 24: Tracey Ullman – They Don’t Know

I do like ’80s-era Tracey Ullman and her comedy-tinged music videos.  There’s something a bit mid-century retro about this one, which I quite like.  It was originally a Kirsty MacColl track, which explains the quality.

Track 25: Will Powers – Kissing With Confidence

Is that his real name?  Apparently not (and apparently it’s not actually a he).  The song is expectedly daft and not much to write home about musically.

Track 26: Genesis – That’s All

For some reason I always think of Genesis as more musically respectable than solo Phil Collins.  I’m not sure why.  This one’s another head-nodder, but not playlist-worthy for me.

Track 27: The Cure – The Love Cats

Being a shameless goth, the Cure are my favourite band.  This is a great upbeat party song, but if you want something more epic, beautiful and melancholy, I thoroughly recommend all the other tracks on the Japanese Whispers EP.  I remember spending all of 2004, which was a tough year for me, just listening to it over and over.  Gorgeous stuff.

Track 28: Simple Minds – Waterfront

Lovely guitar intro on this one.  Fairly paint-by-numbers Simple Minds, without much in the way of hooks.

Track 29: Madness – The Sun And The Rain

Madness can’t do much wrong as far as I’m concerned.  Great bouncy track.

Track 30: Culture Club – Victims

Eyebrow goes up again at another repeated artist!  I’ll forgive the Now! compilers this time, though, because I do love this one and its epic and sweeping chorus.