Spoiler Alert: this is the best game ever that deals with Insurance underwriting, and also this is my favourite game from the late 2010’s. I’ll try and be objective.
Return of the Obra Dinn is the second offering from named game designer Lucas Pope, the follow up to 2013’s “Papers, Please”, a game I’ve yet to play but I am intrigued by. Pope’s ability to turn dull, admin based jobs into magical gameplay experiences is further explored in this game. In Papers, Please the target was Immigration, in Return of the Obra Dinn it’s Insurance Underwriting.
The titular Obra Dinn is a ship. The game is set in 1807, where the damaged ship sails back into the harbour in Falmouth, with no crew on board. You’re given a ledger with the details of the ship, the route and it’s basic details about the 60 people on board such as job and nationality, and not much else to go on. However you’re also given a pocket watch. This watch will lead to clues as to what happened to each individual on board, as the watch when pointed at one of the dozen or so piles bones that lay on the ship will give dialog & a freeze frame of when they die, the ultimate “Record scratch – you wonder how I got here”.
After a brief, 5 minute tutorial which details the game (you solve fates of the crew in groups of 3, preventing you from brute forcing it), you’re then left to solve the story of the crew to your own devices. The crux of the game is working out what happens to each individual by cross referencing data in your ledger with freeze frames, and using knowledge of jobs & languages to try and piece together what happens. You are taken on a journey around the ship, and soon learn not everything is what it seems, with not everybody accounted for, leaving some element of guesswork as to what happens.
This is a game that plays to Pope’s strengths. The graphic style is akin to the Apple II monochrome (other filters for classic computers are available), and whilst there isn’t any animation, you do develop a connection to the personalities on board the ship. You overhear conversations and discussions, and despite having no animation, you feel like you’re on a living, breathing ship.
One area that is fully serviced is the sound – this game is fully dialogued (linguaphiles and those who can pick up accents will have an advantage in this game), and the game has a fully scored soundtrack. They’re short loops, rarely more than a minute long, that play over the 2-bit dioramas, but don’t get annoying. Probably because after uncovering all the lost souls, you find yourself darting between events, and the music tracks get ever more foreboding as you deal with everything from accidents to things a bit more sinister.
Return of the Obra Dinn is a rarity in games – totally original, and totally worth playing. It’s not too long – it probably took about me about 10 hours from start to completing every character (though you can finish it beforehand, but with multiple endings it’s worth persevering). There are times where guesswork and brute force is needed, particularly towards the end, but really don’t let put you off. If you’re fans of games of a more cerebral nature, than Return of the Obra Dinn is one game that is well worth your time.