We play video games to escape from the mundaneness of our jobs and everyday life. Through them, we become super heroes, gods, cowboys, treasure hunters, and scrappy plumbers with princess girlfriends. Despite a wealth of sexier options at its disposal, one of the most memorable and compelling video game experiences of the year thrust me in the role of an insurance adjuster of all things.
Now, sure, you’re an insurance adjuster with a magical watch that allows you to visit a deceased person’s final moments, but your ultimate goal remains figuring out all the assorted insurance claims clogging your early 19th century bureaucrat’s desk. In Return of the Obra Dinn, Lucas Pope, the one man dev machine behind the abysmally depressing yet poignant Papers, Please, has masterfully worked out how to turn his penchant for putting players in the shoes of folks with strange careers into something eminently playable and fun.
The best description to convey the truly unique concept behind this surprise gem is Tacoma meets Where’s Waldo? meets Clue on the deadly seas that are beautifully designed to harken back to the supersized floppy disk adventures of the DOS game days. You enter the Obra Dinn with zero knowledge of the ship’s voyage and only the previously mentioned supernatural watch and a journal/manifest to track your findings.
As you discover remains, you begin to fill in the journal with the details of who died (or survived), by what means, and if it was at the hands of anyone or anything. You’ll also likely be taking hilarious notes to help you keep track of clues while waiting for more identifying information. Some of my favorite personal notes included: “Person X killed Abe Lincoln looking axe dude”, “Charlie threw up”, “Crushed dude shot dude with cannon”, and “Shipmate 37 female tattoo on right arm”. This all unfolds in a wonderfully non-linear fashion that only adds to the mystery and peaks your interest further as you’re often seeing the aftermath of a yet to be discovered poor decision or tragedy.
For the two days it took me to complete my journey, it seemed like every waking thought was consumed by making sense of the maritime puzzle before me. During the day, I would scour through my notes looking for the missing link, and at night I would lay in bed wondering the best way to piece together the next clue. Several reveals led to audible gasps or “Oh No”s being involuntarily blurted out as the story had me fully invested. As beautiful as the game is, the satisfaction of deciphering another passenger’s fate was like nothing I had ever experienced in a game and was the true hook that made the game unforgettable.
It’s rare that I would recommend someone drops what they’re currently playing and immediately start a new game, but Obra Dinn is well worth it. At approximately 8-10 hours depending on your sleuthing abilities, it’s perfect for a video game weekend getaway. More importantly, I can’t wait for more people to finish this game, so I can talk about it and the real estate it will be occupying in my brain for quite some time. If you are so inclined to decode the mystery for yourself, I have left some useful tips below.
Tips for Solving the Mystery of the Obra Dinn
Rid Yourself of All Distractions
This is not a game to play while watching TV. Put on some headphones, turn off the lights, and let yourself become completely immersed in your newfound clerical career.
Like plenty of great games of yore, you’re going to need to take a lot of notes to keep track of everything you come across. Plus, you’ll undoubtedly laugh at some of the weird things you write down in the heat of the moment or at how your handwriting is slightly worse than that of a 5 year old.
Read the Glossary
Unless you already possess some nautical expertise, you’re probably going to need some assistance with basic definitions. Just knowing the simplest details of what the roles on a ship’s crew are can pay off big time with helping to identify a poor soul.
Look at Every Page of the Book
You may end up getting bogged down in the current mystery you’re solving, but sometimes the clue you need can be discovered in the unlikeliest of places in your handy journal.
Some Identities Can be Deduced Just by Sketches
There are 3 important sketches you will frequently go back to as you attempt to identify the deceased and the perpetrators. With some very basic deduction about what certain high ranking people might wear, where certain crew members may typically be located on the ship, and who is likely to socialize with who, you can get off to a fast start.
Your first time through a memory you may be laser focused on the victim, but be sure to come back with a fresh perspective later on as some of the most important clues are unfolding in the background. Eventually you’ll come to realize what some of the meatier moments are that may require double digit views to fully grasp.
Use Process of Elimination, but Don’t Brute Force It
You may end up feeling mildly racist as you attempt to whittle down the remaining unknown crew by guessing based on clues surrounding ethnicity including how they look, the languages they speak, or the fellow crew members they seem to always be around. One extremely useful tool is the ability to mark someone as the type of role they are before determining their name (ex. “Unknown Passenger”). Knowing who your topmen or seamen are can really help you narrow things down.
Sleep is Important
At some point you will get very stuck. It’s important to remember that you can sometimes find out even more about a person when they’re sleeping than when they’re awake. I won’t get into too much more detail since it’s a fun trick to uncover, but just remember that you can learn a lot from the bed or hammock someone keeps.
Best of luck, and may you bring peace and reasonable insurance claims to the doomed men and women of the Obra Dinn.