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‘Return of the Obra Dinn’ Takes the Detective Genre and Turns it Inside Out

31 Days of Horror



Exactly one year after it was released on PC, Return of the Obra Dinn finally docked on consoles earlier this month. After twelve months of hearing critics sing nothing but praise, I decided to keep my expectations at bay. I was pretty sure that from an artistic point of view, the critically acclaimed whodunit would certainly be a game I admire, but the question I had was whether or not it would live up to the immense hype.

The newest game from designer Lucas Pope (developer of Papers, Please) is quite special and unlike any video game, I’ve played before. Like Christopher Nolan’s Mememto, Return of the Obra Dinn guides the audience through a fractured narrative where they must start from the end and work their way back in order to solve a large-scale mystery layered with eccentric personalities, ulterior motives, dark secrets and a web of lies. Return of the Obra Dinn isn’t just a game with a twist ending; instead, it’s a story that literally keeps you guessing with every scene.


The Journey on the Obra Dinn

When a ghost ship washes up on England’s shore, it’s your job to figure out what happened to the men and women onboard.

You play an insurance investigator, an employee of the East India Trading Company who has been sent to investigate the Obra Dinn, a ship that was lost at sea in 1803 and has reappeared four years later. Your task is to try and figure out what happened to the sixty crew members and passengers who boarded the ship before it mysteriously vanished. On paper, it reads like a simple set up, but Lucas Pope isn’t known for making simple games.

To accomplish this task, you are given a notebook that contains sketches of the crew, a manifest of everyone on board, and various possibilities of how each person died. It’s up to you to fill in the gaps. In addition to the notebook, you are also given the Momento Mortem, a pocket watch that allows you to rewind time upon encountering a corpse. Much how The Sinking City lets you use detective Charles Reed’s Mind’s Eye to peer through the fabric of reality, the Momento Mortem allows you to see visions of the past and witness the exact moment of someone’s death. As you watch the story unfold in reverse chronological order, you relive the final moments of the men and women who perished on the ship. With each reveal, any new information seen and heard within the vision is automatically archived in the notebook— but it’s up to the player to figure out the victim’s name, how they died, and who or what ended up killing them. More often than not, you will need to rely on several visions to acquire the information needed to complete a specific entry, forcing you to not only follow the breadcrumbs of information laid out in front of you but to also rely on the journal in order to parse through the clues scattered across the ship. It’s a simple story, yes, but since it’s told in backward fragments, identifying the remains of the 60 bodies and the precise fate of each man and woman, is no easy task.

The Best Sort of Mystery

Return of the Obra Dinn is easily one of the most original and ultimately confounding mind games you’ll ever play. The story is dark, but emotional, and always engaging and Pope, who has every intention of putting us through the mill, doubles his fun by running the whole story backward. The result is a meticulously constructed, cleverly written old-school thriller— and as a thriller, it does everything a thriller is supposed to do: intrigue, involve and keep you guessing. If the prospect of having to do all of the detective work yourself doesn’t turn you off, then Return of the Orba Dinn is right up your alley.


Return of the Obra Dinn may look simple but because the game is one massive interconnected puzzle, it demands the player’s full attention. There are 10 chapters to the story, and each chapter is filled with unexpected plot revelations and clues that can be easy to miss. What quickly becomes clear is that every frame holds a clue. What might seem like a throwaway line of dialogue or a simple sound effect is actually a key piece of information that will help you solve the mystery. As your investigation deepens, the sheer genius of the grand puzzle at work here is slowly unraveled but not without a lot of hard work and some tough problem-solving.

The Return of the Obra Dinn is actually quite hard to complete but if you’re the sort of gamer who enjoys solving difficult puzzles, this first-person adventure game will give you a run for your money. With 60 souls on board the Obra Dinn, it can be a daunting task to keep track of each individual but thankfully Return of Obra Dinn never feels tedious or boring. It’ surely a slow build, but it’s also incredibly rewarding knowing you’re one step closer to solving the mystery every time you uncover the names and fate of each character.

Return of the Obra Din is absolutely brilliant and a terrific little thriller.

Like Lucas Pope’s previous game Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is primarily about processing information and like Papers Please, players must dig through the data and cross-check every nook and cranny in order to understand how each piece connects. While I’m only towards the end of my first playthrough, Return of the Obra Dinn seems like one of those jigsaw puzzles whose pieces snap together more tightly each time you play it. Needless to say, the game is witty, inventive, thrilling and intriguing from the first frame to the very last. It’s also a perfect example of how the right approach to storytelling can elevate a video game.

A Unique Visual Style

Stylistically, Return of the Obra Dinn is a master class in minimalism. While the game is written in Unity, Lucas Pope set out to recreate the one-bit, black and white graphics of the video games he would play as a child. The entire game is presented in a starkly beautiful monochromatic color scheme that invokes the feel of an old computer. There’s even an option in the menu that lets you switch the color scheme to resemble the look of other classic mono monitors such as the early ’80s Commodore. There’s certainly a dreamlike quality to it, and its truly impressive how despite the minimal art style, its characters come to life without the use of animation and with only a few minutes of voiceover.

An Incredible Soundtrack

The music composed by Pope is also well worth praising. Return of the Obra Dinn is blessed with one of the best soundtracks to any indie game and the voice acting is also exceptional. Meanwhile, the sound design is as carefully constructed as the narrative itself, and along with the corresponding dialogue cards, the sound effects can reveal important pieces of information.


Many video games cast players as detectives but few are as well written and engaging as this. I hate to throw around the word masterpiece but Return of the Obra Dinn is close. It’s one of the best games released this decade and a mystery absolutely worth jumping on board for. But what makes it truly special is how it can easily be adapted to any medium be it a graphic novel, a Hollywood thriller, a television series, and even a board game without ever losing focus on what makes it great. Return of the Obra Din is absolutely brilliant, and a terrific little thriller that takes the detective genre and turns it inside out.

  • Ricky D

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.