Return of the Obra Dinn is a ship-shape seafaring death puzzle

Screenshot from Return of the Obra Dinn, showing the ship's main deck in moonlight

Lost at sea in 1803, the Obra Dinn suddenly reappears outside Falmouth years later. None of the ship’s 60 crew and passengers remain to tell the tale of what happened – every soul aboard is either dead or missing. There’s only one person who can solve the mystery of this ghost ship… a determined insurance investigator.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a puzzle game from indie developer Lucas Pope, best known for releasing the ultra-depressing immigration simulator Papers Please. While Obra Dinn isn’t as soul-crushing as Papers Please, it also centres around an administrative task, and a morbid one at that: your job is to identify everyone aboard the ship and what their fate was.

Boarding the ship, you’ll quickly spot a single skeleton on the deck, just outside the captain’s quarters. It’s time to whip out every insurance investigator’s favourite tool: a magic pocketwatch that lets you travel back to the moment of that person’s death.

Maritime murder mystery

As well as your pocketwatch, you also have a hefty notebook waiting to be filled with the results of your investigation. You have a passenger manifest, with names, roles and nationalities, and a handful of sketches from the ship’s artist. There’s also a nautical glossary to help you tell your bosuns from your boatswains (although it turns out they’re the same thing). But the excerpts of time provided by the pocketwatch are the key.

First-person view of hand holding the pocketwatch and looking down at a skeleton
Time for some time travel.

Activating the pocketwatch to investigate a death cuts at first to a dark screen, and you hear a few seconds of audio leading up to the fatal moment – dialogue, sounds of combat, sometimes just a surprised gasp. The game then drops you into a frozen scene of the death, like an extremely morbid diorama. You can move around and examine the scene from different angles, and have a good look at the people involved. Your book keeps track of which “memories” each person appeared in, so you can start to build up a picture of who that person was.

And building that picture does require some serious detective work. Lots of big games these days like to throw in a little mystery-solving, but it tends to be in the form of magnifying glass icons hovering over clues, or using your magic Witcher nose to sniff out relevant objects. Obra Dinn is a lot less forgiving. It will show you the clues you need, but it won’t tell you what’s important.

Finding the cause of death is usually the easiest part, but working out who that unfortunate soul was is more of a challenge. Occasionally you’ll get something concrete to grab onto, like a shouted name or a mention of a relative. But most of the time, you’re rifling through the little things: accents, clothes, where somebody slept and worked. Some people you can only identify through a process of elimination, or what Eurogamer delightfully calls “nautical murder sudoku”.

With dozens of crew and passengers to identify, this can feel like an overwhelming task at first. But chipping away at it is enormously satisfying. There were plenty of characters who seemed completely anonymous to me at first pass, but when I went back and revisited old memories, I realised that they’d been there the whole time, along with the clues to their identity.

Sketches showing people aboard the Obra Dinn
You will work out who each and every one of these people are.

Obra Dinn will only confirm fates in batches of three, so you’ll need to make three correct guesses before you can find out if you’re right. This makes it hard to brute-force your way through the game with random answers, although occasionally a little bit of fudging is required. I know these guys must be the three Russian crewmen, but nobody will tell me their names – time to cycle through all the possible configurations and see if I can nail it.

When the game does confirm your theory is correct, it’s a great feeling. Your tentative pencilled-in answers are replaced with reassuringly solid type, and you start to feel more confident in your vision of how the people aboard the Obra Dinn lived and died.

Sea you in hell

And oh, those deaths. A lot has gone very, very wrong on the Obra Dinn.

Filling in each fate requires you to select from an exhaustive list of potential fatalities – some mundane (“shot”, “illness”, “fell from the rigging”) and some highly alarming (“eaten”). It’s like a particularly violent game of Cluedo. Was it the captain’s steward in the lazarette with the sword? Or the helmsman in the gun deck with the loose cannon? Fortunately, “alive” is also a valid option.

Game interface showing a portrait and options to describe the person and their fate
Some fates are hard to crack, but others are plain sailing.

The game’s sound design is especially effective in the audio segments that play when first activating the pocketwatch. Bone-chilling screams, gurgles and crunches make you both frightened and intrigued to see what vision will eventually be revealed. (One flashback in the ship’s head is especially memorable.)

Despite all the death, it’s during these memories that the Obra Dinn truly feels alive. The voice acting adds a lot of dimension to characters only glimpsed through sketches and frozen memories. There’s also a stirring soundtrack, also by Pope (who has done basically everything here aside from acting and translation). Each chapter has its own theme that plays throughout its memories, amplifying tension belowdecks and elevating tragedy during a storm. When you return to the modern day, there’s only the sound of the waves and the creaking hull to keep you company.

Pixels push the boat out

Return of the Obra Dinn adopts a 1-bit aesthetic inspired by early Macintosh games. I’ve seen a lot of retro art styles, especially in indie games, but never one like this. The result is distinctive, atmospheric and beautiful. It also has the advantage of enabling the game to run on my ageing MacBook.

Three men playing cards next to cannons and hammocks
Nothing to see here, just a friendly game of cards.

There were a handful of times when the visual style made it difficult to tell exactly what was going on (am I looking at a stabbing or a strangling?). But I can’t imagine the game without it.

A handful of mechanics can also cause frustration with pacing. When you enter a scene for the first time, you have to wait a little while before the game gives you the opportunity to guess the person’s fate – not a problem when there are lots of details to check, but annoying when you’ve immediately worked out what’s going on.

There are also some bodies which can only be accessed from within another memory. When this happens, your pocketwatch will shake to get your attention. Pressing the space bar causes the corpse in question to glow, encouraging you to enter another flashback. But at this point, you have to exit the memory and wait for a white trail of light to trace its meandering way from the previous corpse over to the place where the second one lay. It feels clunky, and can be really irritating when you’re already standing in the right location and itching to crack on with the next scene.

I like the cut of your jib

Despite the occasional nuisances, I had a great time playing Return of the Obra Dinn. At eight hours, it’s a relatively short game, but you’ll be absorbed throughout the running.

The visual and audio design is gorgeous and immersive, and piecing together the story of the ship is a rewarding process. Mechanics like the book and pocketwatch create really unique gameplay that actually makes you feel like a detective – or, even cooler, an insurance adjustor.

The result is a really memorable experience, and one that makes me wish I could wipe my brain and play it all over again.

A man firing a pistol
Fancy solving the mystery yourself? Take your best shot.

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