Return of the Obra Dinn review – arduous but captivating

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It’s just you and an awful lot of paperwork in Lucas Pope’s exquisitely realised seafaring mystery

Return of the Obra Dinn.




Return of the Obra Dinn.
Photograph: PR

When the Obra Dinn, a sizable merchant ship believed to be lost at sea, drifts into port one day in 1808, you, as a 19th-century insurance loss adjuster, are dispatched to figure out what happened. On board, you find rag-draped skeletons littered around, snapped rigging, and mysterious gashes in the deck. So begins the arduous but captivating task of reconstructing the ship’s journey, identifying the remains of the 60-odd bodies and, most challenging of all, the precise fate of each man and woman for whom the Obra Dinn offered a final voyage and resting place.

As with Papers Please, the game for which designer Lucas Pope is best known – in which you play an eastern European border checkpoint agent deciding who to let into the country and who to turn away – the drama is viewed through an administrative lens. You must parse and document everything, ensuring the correct names are written into the appropriate blanks in the manuscript once you have deduced, for example, the identity of a sailor crushed by falling rigging, or a passenger who succumbed to disease. But unlike Papers Please, this grand puzzle is infused with a hint of the supernatural. Among the ship’s artefacts, which include a manifest, a crew list and a couple of hand-drawn sketches (all essential clues in your detective work), you also find a magical pocket watch inside a casket, which can be used to trigger a flashback whenever you encounter a corpse.

Each flashback is heard not seen, with dialogue that often contains names or other clues that will help you in your work. Once the scene has played out, you are placed, momentarily, within a frozen diorama, free to walk around, examine and deduce who is present, how they met their end, and, by cross-referencing other gathered clues and identities, at whose hands. You enter these details in your notebook, and the game only confirms correct deductions every time you successfully detect the identity and fate of three individuals. In this way you meticulously build an accurate picture of the fate of the Obra Dinn.

Return on the Obra Dinn


The ghostly crew of the Obra Dinn.

Many video games cast us as detectives, but few before have managed to replicate the laborious if rewarding job of clue-gathering, cross-referencing and extrapolation involved quite as well as Pope manages here. Neither has any game managed to induce such a heady sense of elation as you crack each case within a case. Moreover, rarely has a game put together such a transporting picture of historical life, with all the complex facts of rank, class and power dynamics.

It’s all so meticulously constructed. As your investigations deepen and widen, the sheer ingenuity of the grand puzzle at work here is gradually revealed. The scratchy, lo-fi aesthetic (a few “filters” can be chosen, each one a tribute to a different early 1980s computer graphics style) might give a casual viewer the impression that the game has been quickly made, but when you perceive the superstructure, it’s clear that Pope has taken his time. The idea is filled out exquisitely; few independent developers can afford to let their projects blossom and mature in this way.

In part that’s down to the smash hit success of Papers, Please, on whose proceeds this more ambitious project is built. More importantly, Pope, an American who lives in Tokyo, and mostly works alone, is something of a renaissance man, with an unusual talent for game design. Obra Dinn’s little dioramas of drama intersect one another with unrivalled elegance, providing intriguing lines of inquiry that reach out beyond the screen, into the mind of the player, where they take up a secondary residence.

Also new

Red Dead Redemption 2
(Rockstar Games; PS4, Xbox One)

Red Dead Redemption 2.


Red Dead Redemption 2. Photograph: Rockstar Games


Set in the last year of the 19th century, Red Dead Redemption 2 presents the vanishing world of the American wild west, where gunslingers and moonshine outlaws have become, almost, relics of a former realm. The countryside, however, remains untamed, and never before has the old America been evoked with such care and effort to a video game. Days can be lost in these verdant hills and valleys, home to your character, Arthur Morgan, and the rest of the Van der Linde gang who, following a botched robbery, live a nomadic existence while attempting to make it out of this transitional period of history with a stolen fortune intact.

Built by Rockstar, wealthy makers of Grand Theft Auto, the game has a scope and intricacy no other company would now dare (or perhaps could afford) to create. It continues the studio’s tenacious pursuit of the blockbuster video game as a form of interactive cinema, pushing the player along somewhat inflexible, pre-written narrative lines. But for those who yield to its spell, this is game-making at its most grand and astonishing.

The Guardian Tech RSS

https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/dec/03/return-of-the-obra-dinn-game-review-lucas-pope-ship-drama

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