#43: Return of the Obra Dinn

Brain-bending monochrome adventure for a new era

This review was originally posted to Twitter on January 27, 2019

Initial release: 2018
Platform: PC
Developer: Lucas Pope

Once in a while a game is so utterly aggressively retro that it upends the conventions of both modern and retro games. Return of the Obra Dinn is a 30-year-old Macintosh adventure game in all but age. Deliberately evoking the late 80s/early 90s era of black and white Mac games like Deja Vu, Dark Castle, or The Colony, over the course of its four-year development Obra Dinn became the herald of a new era of “1-bit,” monochromatic graphics using dithering for shading, similar to cult Early Access hit World of Horror.

Billing itself as an “insurance adventure” from the mind that gave you authoritarian bureaucracy paperwork simulator Papers, Please, you are cast as an insurance investigator for the East India Company in the early 19th century, sent to look into the reappearance of a merchant vessel once thought lost. Along the way, you’ve been tasked with filling out a book about the ship’s voyage, uncovering the fates of each of the 60 souls aboard and who, if anyone, is responsible for their disappearance. With the help of a supernatural pocket watch, you unravel the mystery like an onion.

The pocket watch allows you to revisit the last memories of the skeletal remains you find on the ship, and within those memories, you can find the memories of other corpses, going backwards step by step to untangle the chain of events. These memories are displayed in tableau, everything frozen in a single moment (reminding me of the bizarre tableau scenes in A Field in England) with only a short snippet of conversation or sound effect to evoke that moment. you can walk around the memories, but not alter them.

This is a game that requires careful observation and deduction skills. Often-times you’re forced to rely on minor details in one specific memory to identify a crew member; for example, examining the shoes of a couple of the four Chinese crewmen will help ID them in another scene. Attention to detail is paramount; if you can identify an accent or language, it could help ID the speaker. (Fortunately the game provides subtitles for all spoken lines, and foreign languages are rendered in both the original language as well as English.)

Like many of the games it evokes, this game will stump you. You’re often having to make educated guesses, use a process of elimination, and also know obscure facts or even simple things that we don’t ordinarily think about, like knowing someone named ‘miss’ probably wouldn’t be wearing a wedding ring. Sometimes it can be frustrating because the game only confirms three correct guesses at a time. For the longest time I had the fourth mate and the gunner’s mate mixed up; it was only when I went back and looked at the sketch they were in that several other guesses clicked for me.

One of the things about the game that stood out for me was how it seemed to evoke any number of 19th century seafaring adventure tales. There’s something of a lovecraftian bent, too, with the sea monsters, and the mysterious “bargain” chapter left blank until the very end. The story starts at the end, with the corpse of the captain and the last of his crew. But it’s not until you find his wife that the game begins to unfold, her fate tied to the appearance of a giant tentacled kraken. From there, you can uncover the rest of this seafaring disaster.

The monochrome aesthetic, the old-fashioned art style (the sketches especially seemingly of a style a hundred and fifty years old) all evoke old illustrations often included with classic novels, things like Moby Dick or the like. The use of dithering for shading only magnifies that.

This style of “dither-punk” is a relatively niche genre, mostly reserved for indie games, though there is a growing trend of slightly-less monochrome games like The Shrouded Isle that, if not necessarily evoking platforms like the Mac Plus, prove that limitations have their virtues.

If the black and white Mac Plus vibe ain’t your thing, you have your choice of colors, borrowing from classic mono computer displays: IBM 5151, Zenith ZVM 1240, IBM 8503, even classic LCD. And while the commodore 1084 isn’t monochrome, its two-tone blue startup screen is represented too.

Lucas Pope has a reputation for making interesting games. His love for experimentalism (and portrayals of bureaucracy) shows in titles like The Republia Times or Papers, Please. But Return of the Obra Dinn is proof that he can make something a little more conventional while still keeping true to his idiosyncratic style.

-june❤

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june gloom

june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [they/she]