Why Obra Dinn Is One of the Year's Best Games

By Jason Schreier on at

On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, we implore you to not miss Return of the Obra Dinn, a phenomenal game and contender for 2018's greatest.

First we dive into why Obra Dinn is so great, also taking some time to dissect Hitman 2, the Sega Genesis Classics collection, and other games we’re playing. Then it’s time for the news of the week (37:50) on Red Dead Online, Diablo 4, and The Game Awards rumours, along with some off-topic talk on Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born. (And don’t miss Kirk’s new podcast, STRONG SONGS.)

Get the MP3 here, or read an excerpt:

Jason: You play as this insurance adjuster in 1807.

Kirk: Already a great premise. What could go wrong? You’re an insurance adjuster in the year 1807—I’m totally there for that.

Jason: This empty ship called the Obra Dinn re-appears on a dock and it’s your job to go on board and figure out what happened to it. You’re armed with these two items—one of them is a book that includes a manifest of everyone who was on the ship, and other notes that you can keep. And the other is a pocket watch—every time you find a dead body on the ship, you can use the watch to revisit the last moments of that person’s life.

As you go, you uncover what happened to this ship, and you have to use the book to figure out not only what happened to all 60 people, you have to figure out who each person is. You can walk around these memories, see what each person was doing at any given moment in time that you’re exploring, and you have to say, ‘Oh, this is the captain, and he died because of such and such.’ Or this person is the first mate, and he was killed because of this.

Chris Kohler compared it to a logic set, one of those puzzles where it’s like, ‘The third person is wearing red’ and ‘Julie is wearing a hat’—you know the type. It’s really one big logic puzzle because you’re using all this information and deduction and logic to figure out what happened to all these people. And it’s just incredibly well done. Every detail is just meticulously designed—I think it took the designer, Lucas Pope, who also made Papers, Please, four-and-a-half years to make. You and I were texting as we both finished this—holy shit, no wonder it took him that long to make this game.

Kirk: It’s a meticulous creation. I am incredibly impressed by it. I can’t wait to either talk to him about it or hear him talk about it, because the creative process for making this must have been so rigorous and exhausting and just kind of amazing. Looking at the design of the game a little bit—it’s like a logic puzzle and yet it has this narrative twist that makes it unlike anything I’ve ever played. It has the logic puzzle rules in that there are three pieces of information you’re trying to deduce for every single person, and that’s it.

So you have that book, and the book is automatically filled in by your character whenever you find a new person’s fate. It’s filled in by showing you a picture of them, and there’s a master drawing of everyone in the crew, and it’s isolated that person. You know they died, and where in the timeline of the chronology of the ship they died, because the book is broken up into chapters, and each chapter has this evocative name like The Doom or Soldiers of the Sea. You become intimately familiar with each of these chapters, and each one shows a new fresh hell that this ship— This ship was extremely ill-fated.

Jason: Very bad luck to be on the Obra Dinn.

Kirk: These people were bad at staying alive, they were bad at being sailors, and then they were extremely unlucky. And yeah, we won’t get into spoilers, because a lot of the fun is discovering some of the stuff that happens. But what you need to actually figure out on your own is: Who is the person? How did they die? And, in some cases, what killed them? And that it: those three pieces of information. In the process of learning those three pieces of information, however, you learn so much more. You learn the entire story of all these people and how they came to be on this ship and the various relationships they had with one another, because you’ll overhear bits of dialogue when you do a flashback.

Basically you’ll go into a flashback, and the flashback might be of, say, one character you don’t know blowing the head off another character. This game also looks like an old Macintosh game—it has this cool visual style. So it’s really grisly and gnarly, it’s very violent and gross, but it’s not actually that gross because it’s very desaturated, it doesn’t look super realistic. So you’ll go back and see this, one guy shooting another guy. So first you think, ‘OK, well who’s doing the shooting, do I know who that is yet, can I identify that?’ And then you’ll get the entry for that freeze frame, that part of the chapter, and you’ll say OK, this guy was shot, that’s how he died. And then maybe he was shot by whom? You don’t know yet. Oh actually he was shot by this guy, and you know his name, but maybe you don’t know the victim’s name yet.

Then when you’re in this freeze frame memory you can walk around it, time is frozen as this guy shoots him. You look in the background and there’s people over in this other room sticking their heads out, looking at this guy get shot, and then you realise that one guy is standing next to another guy, and he was actually carrying something for him. That guy who he’s carrying the thing for is the first mate, so that means this must be the first mate’s steward because the first mate’s steward is the guy who assists him.

That’s one example of the contextual deducing you do, and that to me is what makes the game so fascinating. It’s structured like one of those logic puzzles, where you have the things you know and the things you don’t know, and you fill in the gaps with some logic leaps, but it’s stretched over this narrative fabric where you’re walking around inside the world and learning about these people and their actual relationships just by observing them, not by getting, you know, ‘I know this guy’s wearing a red shirt and I know this guy’s the first mate,’ but you’re saying, oh, I know this guy’s standing in the first mate’s cabin, and in this drawing this guy is standing over there with the other topmen so I know he’s probably a topman. So you’re doing a lot more contextual deduction, which is so much cooler to me anyways than the logic deduction you normally do in solving a logic puzzle.

Jason: It makes you feel like you’re a detective. And it trusts the player to figure this stuff out even when it’s tough, and it can be really tough.

For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens.