This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) choose a game that might be on our list of “games we should play” and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month to play this game. This is the June final, which was focused on the return of Obra Dinn. Read the first part here!
Presumably, if you’re reading this, you’ve either completed Return of the Obra Dinn, or about two-thirds of the way there before you stop in a rage at not being able to make out all the grainy photos of bearded men. So I won’t bore you with an explanation of the game, and I won’t warn you about spoilers, because you probably don’t need them either. Let’s dive into it.
Humanity has been telling stories for longer than we can ever know. We didn’t understand writing until relatively late, you see – and even then we mainly used it for jotting down super boring things, like receipts and messages, rather than great works of literature. Instead, stories were told aloud, with meter and music, and passed down through oral tradition: campfire stories, cautionary fables, nursery rhymes, and long epics entirely from memory.
Once we started writing them, things got interesting very quickly (anthropologically speaking, anyway) – it was easier to share stories, put a spin on well-known stories, and copy the ideas of others. Eventually the writing turned into books, which turned into movies, which turned into video games, and, well, you know the rest.
What I’m dancing in saying is that Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastic example of where writing, storytelling, and storytelling are in the modern era. We’ve come a long way from linear, chronological, “once upon a time” tales, and even away from more exciting ideas, like non-linear stories, unreliable narrators, and weird framing devices. Obra Dinn is a story that can only being told through a video game, which is odd to say, because unlike a lot of other “perfect for video game” stories, this one is incredibly passive.
By the time you step onto the Obra Dinn, everyone is dead. It’s your job to figure out how they died, but not to save them. This isn’t a typical power fantasy, unless your power fantasy is to create the most meticulous post-mortem risk assessment in the world, in which case, more power to you, moron. But there is no interaction, other than putting names in a book; you are only a witness to events beyond your control.
This isn’t a typical power fantasy, unless your power fantasy is to create the most meticulous post-mortem risk assessment in the world.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is told in a non-linear fashion, driven by the bodies (and the dead) you find as you explore. It’s a pretty simple story, if you rearrange the rooms in their order: a greedy man steals a treasure, its owners come to retrieve it, many people die unnecessarily in the ensuing fight. Sure, there’s a bit more nuance here and there, with a planned mutiny, murder, and supernatural happenings, but even that all ties into the central story.
What makes Obra Dinn stand out is her presentation. I would even say that you can get out of the game no really know the story – you either have to pay close attention and take good notes, or replay it in its entirety, to understand exactly what happened – and still have a great time with the story as it is presented to you.
The way Obra Dinn guides you through the story makes every plot as exciting as possible, obscuring things that would be obvious in a linear narrative. We start with the captain telling his crew that “they” are “at the bottom of the sea” before shooting a man in the face. Instantly, we ask ourselves questions: what is he talking about? Why does the captain kill people? Who is right here? We don’t even get answers to these questions until hours later in the story.
Each scene is a bit more of this maze-like confusion. You rarely find a single scene – after all, the reason you can see the scene in the first place is because someone is dead – so each contains mysteries, fights, explosions, blood trails, and more again, all clues to piece together in trying to figure out what happened on the Obra Dinn.
Piece together the puzzle
The tension in any mystery story is about not knowing things, whether it’s the audience knowing things the protagonist doesn’t, or the audience and the protagonist discovering things at the same time. At the heart of this story is one fact that will change things, and then there are smaller important facts that flow from this central truth: the butler did it and tried to frame someone else, and his motive was money, etc. .
At the heart of this story is one fact…and then there are smaller important facts that flow from this central truth.
The story of the Obra Dinn hinges on one question: what happened to the Obra Dinn and its passengers? For most of the game, you only see the ripples, and none of that makes sense, even if you understand each individual ripple in isolation. By presenting a simple riddle as a messy logic puzzle, which requires deductions, processes of elimination and careful attention to the smallest details, like wedding rings and the color of someone’s socks in order to identify them, Lucas Pope gives us a story by telling it.
My story of playing Obra Dinn (I got all the right answers, by the way) is not the same as the story of Obra Dinn. My story is more in the narrative: being able to share my experience with other people who have played the game, swapping stories of “guy in the striped shirt” and confusing the commissioner and the surgeon just because I thought one two look at more like a surgeon, is the real joy of the Obra Dinn.
Noticing a single foot in white stockings sticking out of a hammock and using that to identify the owner in another scene. Watch three men play cards and speak Russian, and be able to deduce which of them is cheating. It’s these thrills of discovery that make the Obra Dinn so, then special to me, because even though they’re bread crumbs put there by Lucas Pope, I feel smart for spotting them.
The banality of socks
Lucas Pope tells us a story by telling it
At the end of the day, Return of the Obra Dinn ends up being a story of fantastical and magical events, told through mundane means: a book, an insurance adjuster, and death, the most mundane thing of all, the only thing in life. it’s a deposit (other than taxes, I know). It’s a human story – a story where people tried to save each other, to change their destiny, to stand in the way of the corruption of greed.
It’s this humanity, this banality, that weaves through every vignette, every death, to ground us in the story, even as magical sirens and crab warriors from the depths invade the ship. It is this humanity that makes us tell stories in the first place; talking about shared experience, connecting with others about the terrifying unknowability of mortality and the flaws that will ruin us all if we’re not careful.
The Return of the Obra Dinn is not a moral tale, or a fable, or even a nursery rhyme that exists to warn people of the dangers of stealing a mermaid’s magical shells. It’s a story told in a way that only asks you to use your eyes and your brain, to observe rather than act, and what you’re left with at the end of the story is an experience to share.
I just can’t believe this sprawling, tangled, brilliant logic puzzler of a game ended up hinged on socksof all things.
Now that June is over, we’ll be moving on to the next game soon, so here’s the poll if you want your vote on what we’re playing in July:
You can keep up to date with previous Backlog Clubs here:
And finally, the Book Club being part of the Backlog Club, where we discuss our takeaways from Return of the Obra Dinn. Here are some questions to get you started!
- Which character has puzzled you the longest?
- Which character was your favorite secret?
- What was your best nickname for a character?
- Have you taken physical notes to resolve the fate of the crew?
- Who do you think was responsible for the fate of the Obra Dinn?
- Did you understand the 60 destinies correctly?
- Are there any other games that use narrative devices in interesting ways that you recommend?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments!