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”

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