Sunday, October 20, 2019

Pirate Ship of Fools

I trust that you now find yourself aboard the Obra Dinn. I expected this day to come and my every intention was to tell the ship's strange tale within the pages of this book.
"Return of the Obra Dinn"

A comment often made by readers here is that even if a book sounds interesting, they often can't read it because it's Japanese. The linguistic barrier is of course an important one when it becomes to be being to enjoy a piece of fiction, but as someone who also discusses mystery fiction in other mediums, I have found the hardware barrier for videogames the greatest obstacle. For even if a game is available in a language you can read, it doesn't mean you actually have the hardware necessary to play the game. I have relatively many game consoles/handhelds from various generations, but still, I still am far from able to play all the mystery games that interest me. Today's game for example made waves (ha!) when it was released on PC/Mac last year and a few people brought it under my attention too, but I had too wait for the console releases earlier this week to finally play this lauded mystery game.

The Obra Dinn was a ship of the East India Company set to sail to Far East Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, but it had gone missing in 1803 before it made it to the Cape. Nobody knew what had happened to the ship and it was deemed lost, until it suddenly reappeared near its England port of origin in 1807. The Obra Dinn only brought back a mystery from its voyage: only a few decayed bodies remained spread across the various decks of the ship, but of most of the sixty persons on the crew and passenger list, not a single thread can be found aboard. The East India Company, responsible for the ship's insurance, sends an insurance adjuster to find out how and why each and every person on the ship died or disappeared from the Obra Dinn, and they are also supplied with a special log book and a mysterious pocket watch by an interested party. The book contains the ship layout, and a complete crew and passenger list, as well as sketches that depict everyone on the ship, though no names are attached to the persons drawn. The pocket watch, called the Memento Mortem, turns out to be a magical watch and when it interacts with a corpse, it allows the user to first listen to the last few seconds (not see) that person heard while alive, and then actually witness the moment that person died. Using this watch and the book, the insurance adjuster is now tasked with giving each skeleton a name and cause of death, and by doing so, figuring out what in heavens happened on this ship in the 2018 videogame Return of the Obra Dinn (PC, Switch, PS4, XBox One).

As mentioned, Return of the Obra Dinn was lauded at release last year as an excellent mystery game which really made you think and deduce yourself and after spending a long evening on the ghost ship myself in order solve its mysteries, I have to agree that, at the core, this is really well-thought off adventure game that challenges its players to be the detective themselves and show off their reasoning skills, even if the execution is, at rare moments, perhaps less impressive than the fundamental concept.

The core task of the game is to determine the identity of each corpse and also the cause of death, and if caused by a third party, to determine the identity of this culprit. When you start the game, you have almost nothing. You have an enormous list of names (coupled with their occupation and country of origin) and a few hand-drawn group illustrations with everyone on it, but no names accompany these illustrations, so you don't know what names belong to what faces. With the help of the magical watch Memento Mortem however, you can relive the exact moment of demise of each corpse you find. And with exact, I mean exact. The first body you encounter for example, is that of a man being shot in the chest. When you use the Memento Mortem, you're brought to a frozen moment in time, of the exact moment of the bullet impact on the victim's torso. You are also able to see the surroundings of the victim, and even walk around in this frozen moment and you can actually see who shot this victim! It's at this point that you realize that Return of the Obra Dinn is not a conventional murder mystery game, as the rules of the Memento Mortem mean you're almost always guaranteed to see the culprit around if death was caused by unnatural causes. The problem is of course: you have no idea who all these persons are! There's no context for this dying moment, and while the log book is used to record the location and appearance of each corpse, but you don't know what name belongs to what face, so at first everything is black, with unknown corpses who died due unknown causes. Even if you know how the murderer of a certain person looks like, at the start of the game you have no idea what name goes behind that face! The puzzle is thus focused completely on figuring out the identity of all these people are that appear in these dying memories and some victims might turn out to be murderers themselves in an earlier part of the voyage.

The power to see flashes from the past is what allows you to identify each person, even if at first, everything is very confusing as these death scenes are shown without any context about why and when. Yet, these scenes serve as very important clues, as you can cross-examine these dying moments with the files you have at hand. The first victim is apparently shot by a person they call the Captain, and as there's only one captain on the crew list, it becomes clear who the murderer of the first victim must be. People being addressed directly by name or rank in their dying moments are pretty rare though, and from there, the game really starts challenging your deductive skills. Often, persons will appear in various dying scenes (either as a major player or as a background character), and by chasing these persons across all these moments, you can gather all kinds of hints to determine what name belongs to what face. Some persons are swiftly identified, for example because there's only one or two persons with that specific task on the ship, and you see them performing said task during one of the scenes. For others, you must be very observant and cross-reference multiple sources: a certain type of uniform may denote a certain rank for example, or a certain accent in speech or even the place where people decide to hide may betray who they were in life. You thus may have to check multiple corpses, and their death scenes, to identify a different person, and some persons may only play a very minor role throughout the whole game.

In a way, Return of the Obra Dinn is like a gigantic sudoku puzzle: you know each face and each name, and now you have to determine what names and faces can or can not belong together by crossing off all the possibilities. If for example you know this person is either the carpenter or the carpenter's assistant, but you also heard somewhere that the assistant dies before the carpenter, than you can identify both once you know in what order the two nameless faces died. There's no narrative trickery going on, thankfully, so the female-sounding names do belong to females here and persons with Russian accents don't turn out to be Irish. Return of the Obra Dinn's use of the closed circle trope to create a puzzle is great: the enclosed stage (the Obra Dinn) and a limited cast of characters (the sixty names) ensure that all the relevant information is found on the ghost ship. As a videogame, Return of the Obra Dinn also helps the player out luckily, as each time you correctly identify three persons complete with cause of death, their identity will be confirmed by the game itself, locking their names to those faces, meaning you can't accidentally identify two different people with the same name. That said, some of the characters play such minor roles and seem so nondescript, it's like they were only added to fill out the list of sixty names, which can be a bit frustrating.

As you progress and find more corpses and view their respective dying moments, you're also given the opportunity to dive even further Inception-style if you find a corpse during another corpse's dying moments (because the other corpse happened to be close by). This often happens when several people die in one chain of events. Several people die because of an incident with a cannon for example, and while you first find the last corpse to die there, diving in that corpse's memories allows you to see the people who died before him, allowing you reconstruct the whole sequence of chained deaths. This can be pretty confusing for non-gamers though, as it's at these moments the game basically forces you to dive deeper and deeper into each dying memory, without giving you time to consider the previous dying moment and figure out who that person was supposed to be. This coupled with the achronological storytelling (as you mostly experience things backwards as you dive further back in time each time) and having to figure out what person appeared in what dying memory, can make this game a very tricky experience for those not used to playing mystery videogames, where non-linear storytelling is much more common than in books.

With the reconstruction of the deaths of each person and figure out who they were, you'll also slowly piece together the context of each scene and thus also what happened on the long voyage of the Obra Dinn. The sixty persons on the passenger lists all died or disappeared, but not all at the same time: there are obvious 'chapters' to the tragedy of the Obra Dinn, with some deaths actually quite innocent (illness), while other deaths have more fleshed-out drama building up to them. Eventually, you'll reconstruct the whole truth behind the mystery of the Obra Dinn, and it's here I have the game disappointed slightly, considering the extremely promising premise. For the entire story itself is not a mystery story an sich: there are no mysterious murders to uncover or carefully clewed set-up reveals. The story Return of Obra Dinn tells is achronological, but there are almost no moments where you feel that a (later) dying moment is put in a different context due to clever clues shown in other dying moments (the clues you do find, are to identify people, not to identify the plot). There's no real hinting or foreshadowing to the happenings: you're just being told a story in a fragmentary, and achronological manner (because you can only experience the dying moments of each person) and while you have to fill in some gaps yourself, the overall story is not a mystery story. This gap between what you do (search memories for clues to help you identify each person and their fate) and what you learn eventually (a non-mystery tale of how the voyage went wrong) disappointed me a bit, even if the core tasks you're doing is fun and as detectivey as you can get.

Oh, and I guess I should mention something about the graphics. The 1-bit black/white graphics (emulating old Macintosh games) really give this game a unique atmosphere, though I have to admit that the first person perspective and the black/white graphics did me a bit nauseous after a while (yes, I know you can also change the color type of the graphics,  but first person perspective games don't go really well with me in general). I did have the feeling the monochrome colors made the game more difficult than it would needed to be, in theory, as the (purposely) grainy visuals makes it harder to identify the persons. The music is really nice though! When you're just wandering around, you only hear the enviromental sounds, but once you're viewing a dying moment, you're treated to some grand tunes, some of them really eerie and ominous.

As a mystery game, Return of the Obra Dinn is definitely worth playing. The main task presented really challenges the player's deductive skills. Each time you positively identify a corpse and their fate feels like a major victory by your brains, as you definitely need to be patient, observant and thoughtful to be able to progress in this game. By focusing on the question of who every corpse is, the game is able to offer a very complete and focused experience to the player, testing their abilities to find information across various sources (different dying scenes) and make inferences based on them. But I do have to admit that I was kinda disappointed that the overall story Return of the Obra Dinn tells is not a mystery story on its own, but that is a minor disappointment. Anyway, Return of the Obra Dinn is definitely recommend material for those who want a mental mystery challenge.


  1. Definitely been eyeing this game for a while. Planning to play this one right after I finish Ai Somnium Files on Switch.

    1. How's that game? I want to play it, but with more interesting releases this period, I think I'll skip it for now and pick it up at a later date/when there's a deal.

    2. The story for Ai Somnium is great, but the gameplay interaction is a bit weak though (I think Zero escape's escape room sequences had better puzzles). I do think you will enjoy this game; it's a decent mystery story with Sci-Fi story background.

  2. Hi Ho-Ling, I've only started following your (excellent) blog recently but I'm glad that you finally played Obra Dinn. As someone who loves mystery/detective games I think it's one of the most exciting games of this genre in recent years because of how much it breaks away from the standard adventure game mechanics of reading text and point-and-click investigation. In Obra Dinn you really feel like you ARE the detective, as opposed to sitting over the shoulders of one and trying to follow what the game wants you to do.

    On the topic of AI: The Somnium Files, I highly highly recommend you (and everybody else) to play it. I initially wrote a long explanation for why it's a great mystery game worth playing but I ended up deciding to err on the safe side and not risk influencing your expectations. I would definitely love to say more if you're interested though.

    1. Yeah, one of the best parts of Obra Dinn is that it really doesn't tell you anything about what to do, it's like, go figure it out yourself! It does make the gameplay cycle feel very dry (like a sudoku puzzle), but as a relatively short game, it was a very welcome surprise.

      Yeah, most of what I hear about AI: The Somnium Files seems quite positive. It's just that I have too much backlog as is with games... (at the moment, I'm well over twenty hours into Dragon Quest XI S, and I feel I'm still in the early stages of the game...)

    2. Haha, from what I've heard about DQXI 20 hours is just the first 10% of the game at best...

  3. Glad to see you were finally able to play Obra Dinn! I was so excited to recommend it to you last year because it really is maybe my favorite game with deduction as a gameplay mechanic I've played in a long time.

    That said, I definitely agree with you that the overall plot of Obra Dinn is a bit lacking, particularly the final chapter that's revealed. The game spends a lot of time implicitly hyping up that moment by cutting it out of the Memento Mori, but there's not really the narrative payoff you'd expect. Still, I had such a good time putting together the various deaths that it was still one of my favorites from last year.

    As for AI: The Somnium Files, I really liked it too but the "gameplay" segments (the Somnia) are pretty terrible - lots of trial and error on a timer. The actual plot and characters I enjoyed a lot, though I didn't love the clueing and there's a lot of eye-rolling sexual humor at times. Still worth a play though IMO.

    1. Yeah, thanks for the recommendation again! I totally overestimated the specs of my tablet/notebook though, so I was happy it came to the Switch ^_^'

      As for AI The Somnium Files, the timer part was indeed the thing that 'worried' me the most. The first Tantei Jinguuji Saburou on 3DS had these escape-the-room segments where each interaction (whether it did something or not) took time away from a timer, and I really didn't like that as it often boiled down to trial and error and redoing rooms all the time till you got it, and from what I understand, those Somnium segments are kinda similar in idea...