The Obra Dinn

Are you sure about leaving the ship? If you still have stuff to do, climb back up and get to it. Many games that include optional content make it abundantly clear when the so-called “point of no return” is reached. The moment just before the finale when you are shut out of the game world indefinitely. You can then decide whether to save the world from the oppression of the evil Ganon right away, or go fishing for a bit.

In most cases, I do not want to fish anymore once I reached that point. Side missions become less attractive the closer I get to completing the main objective. Return of the Obra Dinn is different. As an employee of an insurance company, I board a sailing ship that went missing years ago, only to get a grasp on the situation and file a report. I might simply shrug, conclude that there are no survivors on board and head back to shore. In fact, from the first moment of the game, there is the possibility to use the point of no return and finish the game. It’s just a job and there is no extrinsic reason to invest a lot into it. The optional content in this game is the whole game and you are free to decide when enough of the mystery is unraveled and when it becomes a chore to push on.

And yet, ten hours later, the ship is no longer just an abandoned ordinary sailing vessel creaking in the wind. For whenever I came to a point during my investigation where I didn’t know what to do next, I still hesitated to descend into the small boat waiting for me. And when I finally did dare, I was asked this question, “Do you have anything else to do?” However, the usual static “yes-no” menu did not appear. Instead, I heard a clock ticking. I panicked at the thought of jumping ship and my stomach tightened. What the game lacks in extrinsic motivation, it makes up tenfold in inducing intrinsic motivation. I quickly climbed back onto the familiar deck and proceeded to explore the remaining mysteries of the ill-fated voyage.

I’ve been inside of big old ships a few times in the last few years. And each time I tried to imagine what it must have been like to live there for weeks on end. In my mind’s eye, the cabins, deck and mast were filled with real people that ate, related to each other, worked and were forced into that confined space for a long time. Those are fascinating mind games, but they remain unsatisfyingly hollow.

When I first set foot on the Obra Dinn, I was overcome with a similar feeling. Despite the odd monochrome graphic style, it matched the feeling I get on real ships. But just like those, the Obra Dinn is empty – that is, until I was set back in time to dioramas of death with the help of my handy time travel device and was free to move through moments of the demise of crew members.

After discovering a few of these scenes, the novelty of it wore off and I was just playing a video game: combining, using different sources of information and taking notes. It’s a good, smart game that’s been written about enough elsewhere. So engrossed in the game, I didn’t notice how my relationship to the place changed. But at some point, the empty ship became the vivid place I had so often tried to imagine. Even though the crew had been dead for weeks and I was only given glimpses into their lives, I was getting to know them. The game asked me to fill in the blanks in my head and so I grew close to the crew, whether at supper, during card games, terrible accidents, or in moments of betrayal and despair.

But it wasn’t the many crew members that I didn’t want to let go off at the end. It was the ship. It was the beams, ropes and hatches, the narrow passageways, the heavy grates and dim corners. I had seen what this place was like when he was alive. And how it died. Those four cramped decks where I had experienced so much. Even after I cracked the last secret and there was no work left, I felt guilty and wistful when I finally let the timer pass and left this ship full of memories. The monochrome pixel images of the Obra Dinn did a much better job of opening my mind to the life on a sailing ship than the tons of wood of real ships.

Return of the Obra Dinn was written and developed by Lucas Pope, creator of “Papers, Please” and was released in 2018 for PC followed by a console release a year later. It’s best played with pen and paper at your side, and be prepared to suddenly sit up in your bed just before falling asleep because your brain has conjured a new working theory that needs to be put to the test the next day. Despite my fascination with sailing ships, I would never go on an extensive voyage with one.

This post is also available in: German