I’ve been slowly making my way through Return of the Obra Dinn, a moody concept piece (or if you prefer, flashy walking simulator) from Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope. It’s a gorgeous game, a triumph of aesthetics over technical grunt, and built around a simple but endlessly pliable concept: investigating a flash-frame of each crew member’s final moments, and working out how they died.
I’m roughly halfway through the investigation, by my reckoning, because I’ve seen the end for around 30 of the characters. After the first few you start to understand where the fun of Obra Dinn lies: this is a grand mystery, filled with unknown alliances and enmities and tragedy and base murder. Piecing it together will be a huge task.
In every memory you can see the other passengers that were around (the Obra Dinn itself is not enormous, so there are nearly always witnesses), and often hear a snatch of conversation prior to the deadly incident.
My first great realisation was that accents are really important. I didn’t note these at first, and later found myself going back through earlier flashbacks to see what my ears could tell me. The second was that the book at the core of Obra Dinn isn’t as good as a real book.
See, as an investigator, you have a notebook that automatically fills in a short account of each scene. The information you have to provide is who they were and how / who killed them. The way this book is implemented is nice enough, and it contains some very useful features such as the ability to ‘bookmark’ particular individuals and thus keep track of the scenes they appear in.
It’s also however something of a clunky tool, because the nature of the game is to give you lots of tiny bits of evidence over long stretches of time, but the book requires your guesses to be firm like Cluedo: it was Colonel Mustard in the Study with the Candlestick! You know a lot about a given death before you can even start drawing firm conclusions.
So I ended up, after half an hour or so, getting out a real notebook so I could group together related deaths, make note of things like accents, and write down any key phrases in what might’ve been said.
The in-game book can serve some though not all of these functions (it keeps a record of all conversations overheard, for example, though naturally not the accents). But a real notebook … it’s just easier to write down ‘dead dude outside door’ then note under it, in block caps, SCOTTISH.
It hasn’t replaced the in-game book, either, because another of the Obra Dinn’s great tricks is that you see everything in a muddled-up order, and working out events and motivations from the chronology is half the puzzle.
So I’ve ended up in this weird position now, wandering slowly around a ship with a virtual notebook, carefully examining every detail, then pulling myself out to what I consider my real investigator’s notebook. If you’re at all tempted by the game – and you should be – I’d suggest you try the same thing.
The game has this funny and distinct ‘hand’ animation whenever you go near a door or something that can be used: your character’s hand shoots out and holds firmly, waiting for the button. If you swerve side-to-side the forearm elongates and looks a little silly.
Returning to my notebook every five minutes felt like my own little forearm animation. There’s something very gumshoe about approaching a mystery with notebook in hand, and something about that solid item that makes the Obra Dinn’s flickering, twilight limbo feel closer, more real, and almost like you can touch it.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.
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