Return of the Obra Dinn: A Very Professional Use of the Coolest Pocket Watch Ever
I wouldn’t call myself an aggressive puzzle game player, but I certainly enjoy them. I adored Portal (like many), had a great time with The Talos Principle, and even the mobile game series The Room has done wonders for making me feel like I’m smarter than I probably actually am. That is why I got really interested when people were saying, towards the end of 2018, that Return of the Obra Dinn was one of the greatest puzzle games they had ever played.
Whoa there. One of the greatest ever? That’s some pretty high praise. It’s important to be skeptical towards those kinds of claims, but I was still interested. It took some months, but eventually I picked it up and gave it a spin.
The premise is remarkably interesting. A trade ship, The Obra Dinn, had left port in 1803 on an expected 6-month voyage and never arrived, thus being declared missing. It mysteriously reappeared in port in 1807 with everyone on the ship, perhaps unsurprisingly, either dead or missing. You, as an insurance investigator, are assessing the ship for damages and payouts. Wait, what was I saying about this being remarkably interesting earlier?
HOWEVER, the neat caveat to liven up the mundane in this game is your Magical Death Time Pocket Watch Thing™ that allows you to see the last moments of someone’s life. You hear a little bit of sound or dialogue that leads up to it, and then you’re placed in a frozen recreation of that particular moment. You scan a limited section of the ship looking for any deaths in that scene while also looking for other corpses to take you to another memory “stage.”
The objective of the game is to identify all 60 individuals who were aboard the ship when it originally left, as well as determine what happened to them (“this character died because of this event”). As the insurance investigator, you have the names and ranks of everyone who was registered aboard the ship, but have no idea what they look like. All you have to go off of are a couple drawings made by an artist aboard the ship. So, being the whiz-kid you are, you cross-reference those drawings with the memories you step into to help identify people.
One of my favorite mechanics in the game is that it won’t ever confirm that you’re right with your guesses until you have three correct. For example, you fill out your notebook with person 1 and person 2’s names and cause of death, and then when you put in person 3’s information, if all three are correct, you hear a happy little noise and the game formally acknowledges that all three are correct by making their spots in the journal no longer changeable. This keeps you from outright guessing on everyone while also keeping you sane if you’re only “pretty confident” about some of them. Trying to identify an individual or their cause of death can take several memories, so it’s easy to have a bunch of half-filled journal entries while gallivanting around the ship fiddling with femurs and ribs.
However, there is no explicit tutorial, so it took me a little bit to figure out how the game operated. There is a “guide” section in the game menu but I admittedly didn’t notice it until later, and that likely would have helped. As a result, I missed a couple things that probably could have shortened my 9-hour runtime of the game.
I also must admit I used the game’s wiki page to get a hint exactly once. Now, don’t get me wrong, the art style in this game works phenomenally well and draws me in quite a bit, but in one of the memories, the way in which a particular person was killed wasn’t recognizable to me despite spending a long time (relatively) trying to figure it out. I knew the identities of all involved in the scene, so that made me feel less bad about looking up the cause of death. So I felt less bad, but still a bit bad. To follow up that mention of occasionally fuzzy artwork, I would strongly encourage you to peek at the trailer for the game to make sure the art style is something you can handle. Despite me enjoying it quite a bit, it’s a thousand percent not for everyone, even taking into account that art is subjective and whatnot.
The music also deserves a shoutout. Hearing ship bells and deep horns blended into some surprisingly intricate songs that fit the theme incredibly well was mesmerizing. There are a pretty finite number of tracks, I believe 12 or so in all, but I was so engaged in what was going on the whole time that it set a great backdrop for my play time. I’ve found myself going back to the soundtrack on YouTube months after beating the game because it’s just so charming.
So those are the rules of the game, which is all swell and dandy, but how did I actually feel? I haven’t had this much fun with a new game in a while, and I am elated to have experienced it. It is without a doubt in my top 10 games of the decade, an impressive feat for how simple the execution was. Using the occasional puzzle game as an outlet to test my own problem-solving skills is something I find great delight in, and Return of the Obra Dinn takes it far to the next level. It’s terribly unfortunate that there’s not much in the way of replay value since the whole point is identifying the unknown characters, but it is what it is. I’m sure if I give myself enough years I can go back to it like it was brand new.
On top of enjoying the gameplay itself, something Return of the Obra Dinn helped me a lot with is accepting that it is okay to play a game only once and for a short time. I feel like many games today promote either their replay value or massive single-run time lengths as a virtue of theirs. Return of the Obra Dinn taught me the important lesson that if the game is made well, there is nothing wrong with only one run through. If I can enjoy a game this much, but the trade-off is that I only get to experience it this way ONCE, I’m all for it (I actually made a whole piece dedicated to this concept here if you’re interested).
At my $15 purchase price thanks to a Steam sale, I can only be mad I didn’t pull the trigger sooner. I want to send this piece off with something witty, but to hell with it. Go play this masterpiece of a puzzle as soon as you get the chance.