Return Of The Obra Dinn PC
Insurance adjustment on the high seas
Lucas Pope’s obsession with antiaspirational vocations continues with Return Of The Obra Dinn, a game in which you play as a 19th-century insurance loss adjuster. Unlike the designer’s previous game, Papers, Please, which placed you in the musty environs of a fictional yet grimly recognisable Eastern European border checkpoint in the 1980s, here the location is somewhat more exotic, even if the work itself is just as monotonously gruelling. The Obra Dinn is an East Indian merchant ship which was lost at sea, somewhere around the Cape of Good Hope, while en route to the Orient. One October morning in 1808, the forsaken vessel drifts into port. The return is marked, not with rejoicing, but with red tape. As a trusty red-blooded insurance adjuster for the East India Company’s London Office, you embark on the ship and, against a soundtrack of creak and slop, you begin to figure out what happened to the 60-odd crew members (a number scaled back from Pope’s original, ambitious crew of 86), many of whose bodies litter its decks and nooks.
It’s a drama told through the lens of mundane vocation, then, in much the same way as Papers, Please. But in contrast to Pope’s earlier work, there’s a sprinkle of the mystical here. A magical pocket watch, found in a casket dredged from the sea, means that, whenever you happen upon a corpse, you’re able to trigger a flashback. This transports you to the precise moment of the person’s death, be it from mutiny or monster. In this way, from a few select frames of action, you begin to fill in the gaps in the story. You might find a withered skeleton slumped behind a locked door, for example, and wind back the clock to discover he took a knife to the back from a disgruntled shipmate. Or you could find a body lying in a bed, shot to the temple with a blunderbuss. In each case you must trace the line of implied action to discover what happened to the person in their final moments – and, crucially, their identity.
People who appear in one corpse’s flashback may reappear later, and much of your time is spent memorising faces and relationships as you work to fill in the blanks. These blanks aren’t only metaphysical. As the narrative chains between clues you’re able to add a note to the logbook to mark each discovery until, hopefully, every crew member is accounted for. In this way, Pope skilfully blends his idiosyncratic storytelling style with a certain degree of player agency. It’s possible to fill in the logbook incorrectly, a factfinding mistake that will likely cause later, spiralling issues with your conclusions. The difficulty of the detective work is compounded by the game’s striking monochrome aesthetic, which has been described, with Pope’s blessing, as ‘dither-punk’, using variously spaced dots in order to achieve shading effects. The art style – a tribute to Apple Mac titles of old – certainly contributes to the sense of melancholy and anachronistic drama (and nullifies what might have been too grisly if rendered in full colour and contour). It also helps to differentiate Return Of The Obra Dinn from the glut of 8bit-inspired indie games on the market – titles using an art style that Pope, of course, helped to popularise. But the lo-fi look also makes identifying crew members rather difficult. Costume design goes some way to differentiate one sailor from the next, but with such a sizeable cast, it’s clear Pope still has some way to go before every face is effectively recognisable. It’s a tension between aesthetic and gameplay that he must find a way to solve in the coming months, lest the game’s fascinating conceit fall apart.
Pope blends his idiosyncratic storytelling style with a certain degree of player agency
Developer/ publisher Lucas Pope Format PC Origin Japan Release TBA
“‘Dither-punk’ is a cool term,” Lucas Pope says of the art style, “and I wish I’d thought of it”