The backstory is set; characters parade out one-by-one, each with their own motives and shady affiliations; the intrepid detective studies the clues and picks apart alibis; a red herring; summation and accusation. A master of the detective story, Agatha Christie had this formula perfected and, alongside the escapades of a certain Baker Street dwelling detective, our well thumbed copy of the adventures of Hercule Poirot is a favourite of mine. There’s a comforting completeness to the story: the mystery is laid out, we get to see all the clues, and finally the pieces are all put together. Unfortunately, satisfying translations of this premise to video-game form are few and far between. Sure, there are some good attempts; LA Noire and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments all take a crack at the detective formula in a more interactive setting, but inevitably the story tends to linearity (or very limited outcomes) largely because of the implausibly large number of permutations that even a few small decisions can produce. It’s impossible to give the player entirely free reign of the deductions, dialogue, or direction of the story, so we’re guided down specific paths inevitably meaning that sign-posting of the correct solution becomes painfully obvious.
One of my favourite detective games of recent years was ‘The Invisible Hours‘ in VR; less of a game and more of a murder mystery play with the player as the virtual audience able to wander freely amongst the unfolding events; despite the VR angle it was somehow a more traditional way of absorbing these kinds of tales.
Into this niche sub-genre steps Lucas Pope’s latest niche offering in the form of the ‘Return of the Obra Dinn’, a game I sampled earlier this year, and one which manages to do a healthy amount of justice to the detective genre despite not really being framed in that light. Pope does something that very few other games have; he gives an experience incredibly close to real deduction.
RotOD sets the player the task of acting as a loss adjuster for the East India Company. A sailing-ship, the ill-fated Obra Dinn, has returned to port but seems to be lacking a living crew, or indeed any living souls onboard. You have been charged with investigating the ship and, supplied with a photograph and mysterious pocket watch, charged with identifying all persons on the ship’s manifest, if and how they died, and the manner of their demise. All 60 of them. Luckily you’re armed with that mysterious pocket watch I mentioned earlier; use it near a dead body and the player is treated to a short snippet of dialogue (or just noises) from the moments before they died followed by a frozen, but fully explorable, scene of the exact moment of their death on the ship. These diorama moments help you piece together what happened, observe who was in the scene, and, as each of them unlocks, builds up the ill-fated tale of the ship’s final voyage.
There’s so much to like about this unique style of gameplay. Most importantly, nothing is explicitly conveyed to the player. When you’re listening to the dialogue you don’t know who’s speaking and likewise, whilst some deaths are more obvious than others, it’s only from examining the scene that you can infer what took place. Some of the fates and identifications of the parties involved are obvious yet others are fiendishly difficult relying on careful observation across many of the scenes to understand precisely what happened. Some of the fates rely on even bigger leaps of deduction as they don’t carry their own scenes; this is particularly true of the more minor characters in the tale. The only help the game gives you is a confirmation for every four correct identifications and fates determined which is just enough to make sure you don’t stray too far from the path of events.
The combination delivering events through these snapshots in time and having so many fates to determine allows RotOD to sidestep that feeling of being placed on rails down a particular plot path. The events have already transpired so you’re not constrained to experience them in chronological order. Instead you can jump about memories tracking a specific face to their possible demise. Likewise this style of play meant that I never felt the rough shove in the correct direction that similar games using a linear narrative need to employ. RotOD truly made me feel like a detective, piecing together the puzzle and unravelling the mystery in a way that no previous detective game had managed.
Of course it’s also impossible to talk about this game without mentioning the presentation. Inspired by the 1-bit graphics of early home computers, Pope immerses in this world with a distinctive black & white style which is ultimately very striking to wander through in first person and sadly not done justice by still screenshots. There is also an superbly appropriate … nautical?… soundtrack which wraps the entire experience up in a satisfying way. Strolling around the motionless vignettes, I couldn’t help but imagine how well this game would work in VR: the small overall map, stark visuals, and heavily observation based gameplay lean into the strengths of the platform…
…I guess what I’m trying to say is: Lucas, if you’re reading this… can we have a VR mode please?
‘Return of the Obra Dinn’ is not only a novel concept, but one that’s executed well. Every aspect of it feels carefully considered and presented with purpose. There are layers of intrigue from the overall journey of the ship, the fate of each of her occupants, right through to how you, the protagonist, fit in to the tale. Don’t expect the game to hand you anything, you’re mostly on your own, and the truth is that I would have done much better had I been armed with a notepad and pen. There’s little else I can say without ruining the experience other than to recommend it highly to anyone who enjoys a mystery and is willing to take the time to unpick it.
… also, yes, I know I’m a bit late to the party on this one…