Some of my favorite games to play as a writer are story games, especially those you have to piece together yourself. Drop me in that cold open, or even better, at the very end of the story I have yet to start unraveling! It’s a great way to hook players into the larger story and start them with question after question about the who, what, why, where, and when before they even have a handle on the controls. When done well, the hook draws players in to keep playing, to see more, to learn more, with little guidance from the game itself. One game that does this beautifully is Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn; follow me as we explore this sordid tale.
The premise is surprisingly straightforward. A ship called the ‘Obra Dinn’ was declared lost at sea in 1803. When it later resurfaces in 1807 with no one aboard, you are sent as a representative of the East India Company and member of the Insurance and Claims office therein to ascertain what has happened. A short boat trip later, and you’re on the ship, your only tools to aid you a blank book with an outline of events and a strange pocket watch. For one thing, this book is interesting. It gives players guideposts to the story and a physical way to mark down what they may think or suspect about the crew as they explore. It also keeps a section of mystery all to itself, locking an entire chapter of time that can only be revealed at the end of the game, should you complete the rest of the book. As for the watch, it’s paired with the phrase “Memento Mortem,” or “Remember Death,” which becomes the main gameplay mechanic of the entire game to come. With only a skull on the surface to hint at its use, the player pockets the object, only to take it out again at the only interactable thing on board: the remains of a skeleton. And just like that, the first death scene is upon us, the start of chapter 10 in the book, titled, “The End.”
In a pretty straightforward 3D panorama of this late man’s death, we see him frozen during the moment he was shot. Context clues (including some light in-game guidance) tell us his attacker was probably the captain of the ship. Alright, easy enough: we may not know the victim’s name yet, but all in due time. This unlocks a door and two more explorable death scenes, all within mere minutes after the chapter’s initial gunshot. Again, easy enough to follow: we see the presumed captain dispatch both men summarily, we put it in the book, done.
New door opens, two new corpses. The first one, placed by the door, is the first we can solve fully, as unfortunate the death may be. The captain kills himself. But before he does, he provides a couple clues to solve more cases. He identifies the other corpse in the room to be an ‘Abigail’, and one of the corpses outside (specifically the one he shot) to be her brother. This is where we learn in-game deaths are locked in sets of threes, and we only find out if we were correct for all estimates when we have at least 3 correct. Of course, we’re now at 2/3, as we know the fate of the captain and the fate of Abigail’s brother. Now to just see how Abby died, should be easy enough, let’s just take a peek…
The picture above is why I’m writing this article. This moment— the transition point from the small, tutorial-like end of everything— to a chaotic scene of a Kraken, tearing apart the ship in the storm, is a legendary gaming hook. Talk about the deep end, and a great way to lead us into a story of mystery and magical beasts at sea. We confirm Abby’s death, getting us to 3/3, locking in our first three correct fates and introducing us to one of the final mechanics: the ability to reveal corpses within memories and later travel to that person’s time of death. From there lies the rest of the game.
There are 60 total fates to find in-game, all helping to determine who lived, who died, and most importantly, how they died. While some are much easier than others, it’s a fun challenge through and through, and I would highly recommend this game if it at all caught your interest. Return of the Obra Dinn won the grand prize at the Independent Games Festival in 2018, as well as the award for Excellence in Narrative. It also received the BAFTA for Game Design and Artistic Achievement, Best Art Direction from The Game Awards, and the Game Developers Choice Awards for Best Narrative. You can also learn more at the games website, https://obradinn.com.