This article is part of our new experimental series, Backlog Club, where we (Nintendo Life!) pick a game that's likely to be on our list of "games we should get around to playing", and then we (NL + you!) spend the next month playing that game. This is the finale for June, which was focused on Return of the Obra Dinn. Read Part One here!
Presumably, if you're reading this, you have either finished Return of the Obra Dinn, or got about two-thirds of the way through before rage-quitting over being unable to tell all the grainy photos of bearded men apart. So I won't bore you with an explanation of the game, and I won't warn you of spoilers, because you probably don't need either. Let's dive in.
Humanity has been telling stories for longer than we can ever know. We didn't actually figure out writing until relatively late, you see — and even then, we were mostly using it to take note of super boring things, like receipts and messages, rather than grand works of literature. Instead, stories were told out loud, with metre and music, and passed down through oral tradition: Campfire stories, cautionary fables, nursery rhymes, and long, entirely-from-memory epics.
Once we started writing them down, things got interesting very quickly (anthropologically speaking, anyway) — it was easier to share tales, put a spin on well-known ones, and copy from other people's ideas. Eventually, writing turned into books, which turned into films, which turned into video games, and, well, you know the rest.
What I'm dancing around saying is that Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastic example of where writing, narrative, and storytelling are at in the modern era. We've come a long way from linear, chronological, "once upon a time" tales, and even a long way from more exciting ideas, like non-linear stories, unreliable narrators, and strange framing devices, too. Obra Dinn is a story that can only be told through the medium of a video game, which is strange to say, because unlike a lot of other "perfect for video games" stories, this one is incredibly passive.
By the time you get on the Obra Dinn, everyone is dead. It's your job to figure out how they died, but not save them. This is not a typical power fantasy, unless your power fantasy is to create the world's most meticulous post-mortem risk-assessment, in which case, more power to you, ya nerd. But there's no interaction, other than inscribing names into a book; you are merely a witness to events beyond your control.
This is not a typical power fantasy, unless your power fantasy is to create the world's most meticulous post-mortem risk-assessment
Return of the Obra Dinn is told in a non-linear fashion, as dictated by the bodies (and deaths) you find as you explore. It's a pretty straightforward story, if you rearrange the pieces back into their order: Greedy man steals treasure, its owners come to reclaim it, lots of people die needlessly in the ensuing scuffle. Sure, there's a little more nuance here and there, with a planned mutiny, a murder, and some supernatural goings-on, but even all of those are tied to the central story.
What makes Obra Dinn remarkable is its presentation. I would even argue that you can come away from the game not really knowing the story — you either have to pay very close attention and take good notes, or play it again in its entirety, to figure out exactly what happened — and still have had an extremely good time with the story as it is presented to you.
The way Obra Dinn leads you through the story makes every single plot beat as exciting as it possibly can be, by obfuscating things that would be obvious in a linear retelling. We begin with the captain, telling his crew members that "they" are "at the bottom of the sea" before shooting a man in the face. Instantly, we have questions: What is he talking about? Why is the captain killing people? Who is in the right here? We don't even get answers to these questions until hours later in the story.
Every single scene is just more of this maze-like confusion. Rarely do you find a simple scene — after all, the reason you can see the scene in the first place is because someone's died — so each one contains mysteries, fights, explosions, trails of blood, and more, all clues to piece together in trying to figure out just what happened on the Obra Dinn.
Piecing together the puzzle
The tension in any mystery story hinges on not knowing things, whether that's the audience knowing things that the protagonist doesn't, or the audience and protagonist finding things out at the same time. At the core of this story is a fact that will change things, and then there are smaller important facts that ripple out from that central truth: The butler did it, and tried to frame someone else, and his motive was money, and so on.
At the core of this story is a fact...and then there are smaller important facts that ripple out from that central truth
The tale of the Obra Dinn hinges on one question: What happened to the Obra Dinn and its passengers? For most of the game, you're only seeing the ripples, and none of it makes sense, even if you understand each individual ripple in isolation. By presenting a straightforward mystery as an out-of-order logic puzzle, which requires deduction, processes of elimination, and careful attention to the smallest details, like wedding rings and the colour of someone's socks in order to identify them, Lucas Pope is giving us a story in the telling of it.
My tale of playing through Obra Dinn (I got all the answers right, by the way) is not the same as the tale of the Obra Dinn. My tale is, instead, in the telling: Being able to share my experience with other people who have played the game, swapping stories of "stripy shirt guy" and getting the purser and the surgeon mixed up purely because I thought one of them looked more like a surgeon, is the true joy of the Obra Dinn.
Noticing that a single white-stockinged foot is sticking out from a hammock, and using that to identify the owner in another scene. Looking at three men playing cards and speaking Russian, and being able to deduce which one of them is cheating. These frissons of discovery are what make the Obra Dinn so, so special to me, because even though these are breadcrumbs put there by Lucas Pope, I feel smart for having spotted them.
The mundanity of socks
Lucas Pope is giving us a story in the telling of it
At the end of the day, Return of the Obra Dinn ends up being a story about fantastical, magical events, told through mundane means: A book, an insurance adjuster, and death, the most mundane thing of all, the one thing in life that is a surety (other than taxes, I know). It is a human story — a story where people tried to save one another, to change their fates, to get in the way of the corruption of greed.
It is this humanity, this mundanity, that weaves through each vignette, each death, to ground us in the story, even while magical mermaids and crab warriors from the deep invade the ship. It is this humanity that makes us tell stories in the first place; to speak about a shared experience, to bond with others over the terrifying unknowableness of mortality and the flaws that will ruin us all if we aren't careful.
Return of the Obra Dinn isn't a moral tale, or a fable, or even a nursery rhyme that exists to caution people of the dangers of stealing a mermaid's magical shells. It's a story told in a way that asks you only to use your eyes and brain, to observe rather than to act, and what you are left with at the end of the telling is an experience to be shared.
I just can't believe that this sprawling, tangled, brilliant logic puzzle of a game ended up hinging on socks, of all things.
Now that June's wrapped up with, we'll be moving on to the next game soon, so here's the poll if you want to have your vote on what we play in July:
You can catch up on previous Backlog Clubs right here:
- Backlog Club: EarthBound Part Two - Bees, Backtracking, And Biscuits
- Backlog Club: Week Two, May - Getting SNEStalgic With Earthbound
- Backlog Club: Slay The Spire Part One - Be More Tortoise
- Backlog Club: Slay The Spire Part Two - A Tale Of Frustration, Obsession, And Poison
And finally, the book club part of the Backlog Club, where we discuss our takeaways from Return of the Obra Dinn. Here are some questions to kick you off!
- Which character was the one that had you stumped for the longest time?
- Which character was your secret favourite?
- What was your best nickname for a character?
- Did you take physical notes to solve the fates of the crew?
- Who do you think was to blame for the Obra Dinn's fate?
- Did you get all 60 fates correct?
- Are there other games that use narrative devices in interesting ways that you recommend?
Tell us your thoughts in the comments!