The Spoils Within the Obra Dinn

By: Steven Chua, Year 13


As the go-to whipping boy for moral guardians, video games have had their fair share of urban legends. There’s supposedly some sort of rage virus implanted into video games that has single-handedly turned the Earth’s population of pure, innocent children who breathe sunshine and rainbows into gun-crazy sociopaths. Now, as much as I enjoy relentlessly mocking these notions, they aren’t entirely baseless— the video game market really is oversaturated with repetitive military shooters. So instead of complaining about moral guardians for 1000 more words, I figured it would be more productive to review a video game that a) is about thinking rather than shooting and b) is actually really, really good.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a first-person detective game where you play as an English insurance adjuster. Set during the early 1800s when Britain was still relevant. You’re called to investigate a ship named the Obra Dinn, which has mysteriously returned to English waters after being lost at sea. As if this wasn’t spooky enough, everyone on the ship has either died or disappeared. You’re given a book which contains a sketch of everyone on board and a crew list. With these in hand, your job is to figure out two things for each person on board: who they are, and how they died. Before you can resign and join a company with more realistic expectations for their employees, you’re also given a magical pocket watch called the “Memento Mortem”— open it near a corpse and you’ll get an audio clip that relates the events before that person died, as well as an explorable still scene at their moment of death.

Always remember to get your Vitamin C, kids.


This setup leads to one of the most engaging detective games I’ve ever experienced. Don’t expect to have your hand held here; people won’t just randomly blurt out the names of everyone around them as they die, so you’ll have to rely on deductive reasoning and clues found in the memories (and the book) to determine everyone’s fate. Unlike the IB diploma program, the game really makes you feel like a genius when you figure things out. Nothing strokes the ego quite like finding some new clues, using them to deduce a person’s identity, inputting your answer, and hearing the “Correct Fates” jingle.


What makes Obra Dinn stand out compared to most other detective games is how hands-off it is. Many games automatically keep track of important evidence and clues for you as if they’re worried you might have to do some actual detective work in a detective game; in contrast, Obra Dinn just dumps you into the death memories and leaves you to hunt for clues on your own. This process is much more organic and leads to those “Aha!” moments where you discover some crucial details you didn’t notice before.


“Mr. Brown was shot with a gun by Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room”


Another thing Obra Dinn pulls off fantastically is integrating the story with the gameplay. It’s through the deductive gameplay of looking for clues in the memories that you uncover the events that befell the ship. Also, the story isn’t handed to you all neat and tidy. The memories are gone through in a nonlinear order and have missing gaps between each other, so you’ll have to piece together how each vignette fits into the overarching story. Through these, Obra Dinn takes full advantage of the special interactivity provided by video games to tell its story. A lesser game would’ve shoehorned in eons of cutscenes with all the finesse of 19th century dental surgery.


Admittedly, the actual plot of Obra Dinn isn’t up to much. The story line is rather straightforward once you piece the fractured narrative together. Still, the game is proof that a few bits and pieces of character are all you need to make a compelling story. Greed, bravery, revenge, and compassion are ever present throughout the brief memories and little tales we get to see. And tragedy, of course. Nothing less should be expected from a story that ends with everyone being dead.


Obra Dinn was almost single-handedly created by indie game developer Lucas Pope, which makes the quality of the audio design all the more astounding. The ambient noises of creaking boards and crashing waves create a ghost ship atmosphere I could immerse myself in for hours. The soundtrack complements the tone of each part of the story, ranging from upbeat to daunting to sorrowful. My personal favorite is the jaunty, jolly tune that plays during the part where people are being decapitated and burned to death. The voice actors also deserve praise for making convincing 19th century accents which, along with the fantastic sound effects in the audio clips, engross you in each memory’s events. 


Since only the most masochistic solo developers would make realistic AAA-level 3D graphics, Pope opted to render the game in a 1-bit monochrome style that makes the game look as if it’s been drawn in the black ink style common in 19th century texts. It’s an extraordinary artistic choice that sells the game’s setting. It also serves as nostalgia for those old Macintosh games, though that would be lost on most readers of this article, including me.

It’s never actually daytime in-game, so the world of Obra Dinn is probably 

an alternate reality which has been voodoo cursed with eternal darkness.


Obra Dinn does have its issues, of course. The lack of a run button is a big one, as it makes navigating the boat more tedious than it needs to be. I guess Pope assumed that all insurance adjusters had advanced leg muscle atrophy or something. The boat’s bobbing motion can also be nauseating. If you’re like me and can’t stare at these sort of things without coating the keyboard in last night’s dinner, you’ll find some much-needed refuge in the motionless death memories. Lastly, it’s annoying how you get locked in a memory for a while the first time you visit it. Some of them don’t have a lot going on but you still have to wait a while before you can leave. Ultimately, though, these complaints feel like using a magnifying glass to find tiny cracks in an otherwise perfectly carved sculpture.


In an industry that seems to worship the Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V commands, it’s refreshing to see a game that embraces a truly original concept. Obra Dinn even achieves the double triumph of landing the execution, too. It’s like finding a diamond in the rough and then finding a shinier, more valuable diamond inside that first one. I know people nowadays are probably too busy not doing their homework to play a new game, but sometimes all you really want at the end of a hard day is the catharsis of cleverly deducing three more identities. And hey, at least you aren’t one of the 60 people aboard the Obra Dinn.


(Top 3 pictures were taken from the Steam page, bottom one is my own screenshot)

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