the art of return of the obra dinn

The Art Of Return of the Obra Dinn

Return of the Obra Dinn is like no other. Concocted by the visionary mind of Lucas Pope, already acclaimed for his masterful work on Papers Please, this game takes players on a journey through the mazes of time and space aboard the mysterious ship Obra Dinn. This ship pops up in our gaming lives, offering daring explorers the opportunity to probe its secrets and unravel the riddles that haunt each of its corridors.

Return of the Obra Dinn presents itself as a kind of detective story. Players explore a ghost ship equipped with a special device that allows them to go back in time and view the moment of death of each crew member. The mechanics are surprisingly immersive, but it’s the austere graphic style that’s really striking, especially if you recognize the homage to the 1-bit aesthetic.

In this article, we delve into the depths of art and design that give Return of the Obra Dinn its indelible aura. Through an exploration of the themes of identity, destiny and memory, we’ll analyze the multiple layers of meaning lurking behind the game designer’s artistic choices. From the choice of a minimalist 1-bit visual style to the ingenious exploitation of dither-punk to sketch striking visual landscapes, via a mythological marine bestiary, each element of this game will help us reveal the subtleties and nuances that make it a truly outstanding work.

A 1-bit aesthetic

In Return of the Obra Dinn, the art direction is bold and minimalist. Lucas Pope deliberately opts for a 1-bit black-and-white visual style, a choice that evokes the early days of video games and defies contemporary standards of high definition and visual richness. This return to basics, inspired by 1980s games on computers like the Macintosh Plus, is an artistic statement to create an immersive and evocative visual world. The 1-bit black-and-white aesthetic lends the game a unique, timeless atmosphere. The absence of color allows the focus to be on contrast and detail, creating a captivating visual experience. This uncluttered aesthetic also serves to reinforce the game’s dark, mysterious ambience, immersing players in a world where every shadow and pixel matters.

the art of return of the obra dinn
the art of return of the obra dinn

The early Macintosh made a major contribution to the rise of personal computing, and its games, software and mouse-driven multi-window interface directly influenced the graphic adventure and simulation genres. (Point-and-click adventures owe much to games like Deja Vu and Shadowgate, for example, while the interface of the first SimCity was inspired by MacPaint). But the Mac has never been very popular, and games have never had much success on this machine, so few people in or around the gaming industry seem to be familiar with its distinctive look. However, there are tangible reasons to embrace the 1-bit style that go beyond mere nostalgia. Indeed, Return of the Obra Dinn is built around the examination of violent and bloody murder scenes, which might have been difficult to bear without the stylization and abstraction offered by the graphic approach used.

Deja vu II
Deja vu II

Pope sought to capture the legibility and simplicity of the great black-and-white Mac games of this era by making Obra Dinn resemble an inverted CAD drawing. He got the idea from a 1987 Mac first-person shooter called The Colony, which featured a mostly 3D wireframe world and started with the lights off so that it was mostly black – just like aboard the Obra Dinn, which is mostly black because it’s a dark old ship.

The Colony
The Colony

The absence of colors or shades of gray makes for a simpler, cleaner visual style. Pope keeps most objects in white or black, as he found it more legible in 3D, but he regularly uses a technique called dithering. On older Macs, this was the main approach to introducing depth, detail and nuance. Basically, it involves alternating black and white pixels in various patterns to give the illusion of multiple shades of grey (rough and uneven). The denser the black pixels, the darker the gray, and vice versa. Kipp0 talks about this wonderfully in his critic of World of Horror.

The Dither-punk movement

The Macintosh Plus is the unsung hero of video games. It is not revered like the Atari. It hasn’t had a flamboyant renaissance like the NES. But a collection of gamers swear by its legacy. No other personal computer had high-resolution graphics like it, but the trade-off was that it was black and white. This 1-bit limitation forced innovation. Developers had to find techniques to show contrast and legibility. One technique, called dither, used alternating black and white pixels to mimic shadows and depth. The dither-punk aesthetic was born. Now, over 30 years later, games such as Return of the Obra Dinn use dither-punk to create unique visuals.

Dither-punk, a visual rendering technique that uses dithering patterns to simulate shades of gray, is an essential component of the game’s aesthetic. This innovative artistic approach creates subtle textures and smooth transitions between black and white, adding visual depth to the 1-bit black and white aesthetic. This technique is akin to a form of digital illusionism. It’s an ingenious technique that deploys pixels by playing with a few colors selected from a palette to mystify the eye and make it perceive a multitude of hues. In this image, for example, the illusion of a gradation of luminosity is created, whereas in reality, only a clear-cut dichotomy prevails: either the fullness of light, or total darkness.

The clever use of dither-punk in the game helps to smooth out the abrupt transitions between black and white pixels, creating smoother, more pleasing images to the eye. For example, in certain scenes, dither-punk is used to soften the contours of characters and objects, creating a more realistic aesthetic despite the technical limitations of the black-and-white style. In addition, dither-punk is also used creatively to add subtle detail and texture to the game’s visual elements. For example, in the shipwreck scenes, dither-punk is used to simulate sea waves and water splashes, adding an extra dimension to the game’s immersive atmosphere.

Dither-punk emerged as an artistic reaction against the overabundance of conventional aesthetics in the video game industry. This movement has its origins in the technical limitations of early personal computers, in particular the Macintosh Plus, and seeks to revitalize the aesthetics of gaming by exploiting these constraints to create unique and memorable visual experiences.

Who's lila
Who’s Lila, an example of a game from the dither-punk movement
Who's lila

The Macintosh Plus, released in 1986, offered limited graphics capabilities, particularly in terms of color and resolution. To get around these limitations, developers used dithering techniques, which involved alternating black and white pixels to create the illusion of shades of gray and depth. This approach gave rise to what is now known as dither-punk, a distinct visual style characterized by its creative use of contrasting pixel patterns. It draws its inspiration from various artistic movements, such as pointillism and digital art, while also drawing on the visual conventions of 80s video games. By combining these influences, dither-punk manages to create an aesthetic that is both retro and contemporary, capturing the imagination of gamers and designers alike. Although dither-punk has its roots in early personal computers, it is currently enjoying a renaissance in the world of independent gaming. Games such as Return of the Obra Dinn and Rogue Invader explore the aesthetic possibilities of dither-punk, attracting the attention of gamers and critics alike for their innovative use of this unique aesthetic.

Rogue Invader
Rogue Invader

Graphics and character design

Lucas Pope’s approach to character design is simply remarkable, even within the constraints imposed by the 1-bit style. Each character is meticulously crafted, sporting distinctive visual traits such as clothing, accessories and facial expressions. This meticulousness brings an unrivalled narrative richness, allowing players to truly connect with the characters and their story. One of the major strengths of Return of the Obra Dinn lies in its diversity of characters, contributing to its visual success. From sturdy sailors to distinguished passengers and austere officers, each individual aboard the ghost ship has his or her own unforgettable visual identity, conferring unrivalled narrative depth.

Remember the 60 characters in the game
Remember the 60 characters in the game

Each character is carefully sculpted to play a specific role in the game’s overall narrative. From crew interactions to aristocratic confrontations, each character brings a unique dynamic to the spellbinding atmosphere of the ship, adding layers of complexity and suspense to the player experience. What particularly sets the individuals in Return of the Obra Dinn apart are their distinctive visual characteristics, offering instant recognition and immediate immersion in their world. Whether through eccentric hairstyles or evocative scars, every detail helps to breathe palpable life into these virtual figures, making them undeniably memorable.

There's no shortage of striking faces
There’s no shortage of striking faces

Pope’s approach to character design and graphics represents a veritable tour de force in the creative use of 1-bit style. With its variety of captivating characters and striking attention to detail, the game succeeds in immersing players in a vibrant, immersive visual world, where every pixel tells a fascinating story.

Artistic influences and references

Return of the Obra Dinn is imbued with a multitude of artistic and cultural influences that enrich its visual and narrative universe.

The art of wood engraving

The art of wood engraving finds a striking reinterpretation in this game. This art form dates back to antiquity, but it was during the Middle Ages and Renaissance that it reached its apogee in Europe, becoming a privileged means of artistic reproduction and dissemination of knowledge. In the game, this aesthetic is celebrated and reinvented, giving rise to an enigmatic visual world. The clean lines and sharp contrasts between black and white characteristic of wood engraving are strikingly evident in every pixel of Lucas Pope’s game, creating a unique visual atmosphere. This skilful use of contrasts helps generate a palpable narrative tension, reinforcing the player’s immersion in the game’s enigmatic universe.

Gravure sur bois de Flammarion
Gravure sur bois de Flammarion

By reinterpreting the aesthetics of woodcutting in the context of video games, Return of the Obra Dinn bears witness to the medium’s ability to draw on humanity’s rich artistic and cultural heritage to create unique and memorable visual experiences. By celebrating the techniques and aesthetic principles of woodcutting, the game pays homage to this ancient art form while reinventing it in a contemporary way.

German expressionism cinema

The influence of German Expressionist cinema on Return of the Obra Dinn transcends mere homage to become a veritable artistic backdrop that profoundly enriches the game’s visual and narrative experience. To fully appreciate this influence, it’s essential to immerse yourself in the tumultuous history of interwar Germany, where social, cultural and political upheavals spawned a revolutionary cinematic movement.

Anbetung' ('The Adoration') - Georg Alexander Mathéy
Anbetung’ (‘The Adoration’) – Georg Alexander Mathéy

German expressionist cinema emerged in the 1920s, driven by visionary directors such as Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene. These filmmakers captured the very essence of the German psyche of the time in films that transcended the boundaries of realism to plunge into a universe of distortion and symbolism. Return of the Obra Dinn draws on this revolutionary cinematic aesthetic to create an immersive, unforgettable experience. A striking example of the influence of German Expressionism cinema on the game is found in the masterful use of light and shadow to create striking contrasts and oppressive atmospheres. Just as in expressionist films such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari or Nosferatu, each scene in the game is carefully composed to capture the player’s imagination and evoke a range of intense emotions.

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari
The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari

What’s more, the game draws on themes and motifs characteristic of German Expressionist cinema, exploring subjects such as madness, guilt and obsession through a distinctive visual lens. The sets, unusual camera angles and grotesque characters evoke the dark aesthetic of the Expressionist movement. The influence of German Expressionist cinema on Return of the Obra Dinn testifies to the richness and depth of this artistic heritage. By fusing the visual techniques emblematic of this cinematic movement with video games, Lucas Pope transcends the boundaries between the arts to deliver an experience that is both a respectful tribute to the past and an innovative work of art rooted in the present.

A mythological bestiary

To accentuate the game’s mysterious, heavy atmosphere, Lucas Pope had the brilliant idea of integrating mythological sea creatures. Among them are mermaids, giant crabs and a Kraken, each adding a unique dimension to the story and to the exploration of the doomed ship. Our globe’s waters, both above and below ground, ocean abysses and peaceful lakes, are shrouded in a thick veil of legends and myths. In these tales, sea monsters are not always the protagonists, but their suggested presence feeds our dreams and our fears. The depths of oceans and lakes, beyond our reach, titillate our minds with their unspeakable mysteries, awakening in us mixed emotions of fascination, terror and curiosity, giving rise to often eccentric beliefs.

The Mermaids

Ich Weiss nicht was soll es bedeuten,

Das ich so traurig bin;

Ein Märchen aus alten Zeiten,

Das kommt mir nicht aus dem Sinn”.

So begins the bewitching song from Heinrich Heine’s German poem Die Lorelei. He is captivated by the mystery of this ancient legend, which continues to haunt him to this day. The story of a young girl of bewitching beauty, perched on a rock on the Rhine, her golden hair caressed by a golden comb, bewitching sailors with her enchanting song, causing them to hurl their ships against the reefs. Although Lorelei is not depicted with the classic mermaid silhouette, her legend perfectly embodies the essence of these mythical creatures.

Hylas and the Nymps - John Williams Waterhouse
Hylas and the Nymps – John Williams Waterhouse

This legendary tale recalls that of Ulysses and the mermaids, as well as similar folk tales in many cultures, which tell of mermaids luring sailors to their doom in every corner of the globe. The mermaid is distinguished not so much by her appearance as by her singular behavior. In folk tales, plays, children’s books and Hollywood productions, mermaids have captivated our imagination down the ages, taking on the role of water spirits, aquatic nymphs, sea monsters or vengeful divinities of the waves, their hybrid half-human, half-fish silhouette echoing through the ages.

Mermaids, feared by the Greeks of the sea, were considered deadly seductresses, luring sailors to their doom with their bewitching songs. For English sailors, a glimpse of them was a harbinger of misfortune and imminent death. However, other cultures took a more nuanced view: Chinese sailors believed in their ability to confer immortality, shedding pearls as tears, while Japanese fishermen carried amulets representing these sea spirits. On ships, figurehead sculptures of mermaids served to appease the sea gods and ensure safe passage. In this depiction, the interaction between the mermaid and the sailor remains enigmatic; their embrace seems to evoke a romantic farewell. Perhaps she saved him from drowning? Or is it a final farewell tinged with affection? Howard Pyle, the artist, departed before he could complete his work, leaving a mystery that will never be dispelled with certainty.

The Mermaid - Howard Pyle
The Mermaid – Howard Pyle

An essential symbol of freedom and female fertility, or of the oceanic tumult and implacable vengeance of free women? Mermaids represent all this and more. Some theories suggest they are extraterrestrial beings, others see them as the spectres of women swallowed by the waves, while still others claim they lure humans into the waters to feast on their flesh. It is also suggested that they could simply be manatees or dugongs, observed by lonely, sleep-deprived eyes. If they are of human origin, have they fled to the freedom of the ocean or been banished there? Beautiful and seductive, but also wild and violent, the mermaid perfectly embodies our human relationship with the sea. She offers both adventure and freedom, but remains unpredictable and unfathomable. Our ancestors crawled out of the sea, and our own lives began in a watery womb. It seems our fascination with these wondrous aquatic creatures will never cease.

Mermaid in Return of the Obra Dinn
Mermaid in Return of the Obra Dinn

Lucas Pope draws on the ancient mythologies surrounding mermaids to create a unique representation of these sea creatures. The mermaids in the game evoke both seduction and menace, reflecting the ambivalence of traditional stories about these legendary beings. Their physical features, such as messy hair, sharp claws and serpentine tails, recall classic descriptions of mermaids, while giving them a darker, more terrifying dimension. Their role in the game’s story, as disruptive forces invoked by mysterious events, reinforces their aura of danger and mystery. Moreover, the characters’ interactions with the mermaids, marked by fear and mistrust, reflect the game’s broader themes concerning the unpredictable and often hostile nature of the ocean.

Giant crabs and Karkinos

The bewitching meanders of mythology offer a kaleidoscope of fantastic creatures. Among these entities, often overlooked but eminently intriguing, is Karkinos, a gigantic crab enshrined in the legends of ancient Greece, and more particularly in the tragic saga of Hercules and his twelve labors. Although Karkinos may not enjoy the same renown as the Hydra or Cerberus, its presence in myths reveals a profound symbolism, transcending its narrative role. Karkinos, often depicted as a colossal crustacean with powerful pincers, stands as an obstacle in the hero’s path. Yet his brief appearance suggests much more than just a physical battle. Karkinos embodies the incidental challenges encountered in the quest for greatness, offering a metaphor for the daily pitfalls that punctuate the path to success.

A giant crab in Return of the Obra Dinn
A giant crab in Return of the Obra Dinn

Today, Karkinos transcends the simple mythological tale to become an allegory for the obstacles of everyday life. His struggle evokes the resilience and perseverance needed to overcome even the most seemingly insignificant challenges. In ancient times, Karkinos symbolized the complex interaction between man and nature, reflecting both the nurturing benevolence and the raging hostility of the natural environment.

Karkinos’ impact also extends to the artistic sphere, where his legendary battle with Hercules has been immortalized throughout the ages, from ancient art to Renaissance masterpieces. His enduring legacy lies in his ability to embody universal human aspirations through mythological tales, offering a glimmer of meaning in the midst of chaos. Ultimately, Karkinos reminds us of the timeless power of storytelling, resonating across the centuries as an echo of our collective quest for truth and meaning.

Un crabe géant dans Return of the Obra Dinn

Lucas Pope deploys a sinister and enigmatic representation of giant crabs in his play. As in the legends, these humanoid creatures, hidden behind clumps of seaweed, evoke the mythical silhouette of the giant crab. In Return of the Obra Dinn, shortly after the capture of the mermaids, the arrival of two crab-riders with their giant crabs on the ship brings a new shiver of worry. These creatures wield spears with disconcerting skill. The sharp points protruding from their shells can be projected with fearsome force, capable of piercing the planks of the ship and the bodies of the sailors. Giant crabs, reminiscent of sea spiders, also use their claws to attack, creating a frightening yet fascinating image. However, unlike more traditional sea creatures, these Rider Crabs seem to emerge from a unique imaginary world, immersing players in a mystical experience.

The Kraken and giant octopuses

According to rich Norse mythology, the Kraken evokes a monstrous sea creature renowned for its gigantic size, reaching up to a kilometer in length. Tales often depict it as a terrifying entity, halfway between a colossal octopus and a titanic squid, deploying its menacing tentacles to assault unwary vessels. Its imposing appearance was such that its immense body could be mistaken for an island, adding an extra dimension to its aura of mystery and terror.

L'attaque du Kraken vous marquera
The Kraken’s attack will leave its mark

The origins of this mythical figure can be found in ancient tales, notably in the Örvar-Oddr, a 13th-century Icelandic saga, where the Kraken is mentioned alongside other sea monsters such as the Hafgufa and the Lyngbakr. A subsequent mention in the Norwegian work Konungs skuggsja, circa 1250, describes the Kraken as a unique creature, unable to reproduce and feeding in spectacular fashion by trapping fish with its breath and strong, singular odor, a behavior that fed sailors’ superstitions and fueled maritime legends. Even the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus assigned a place to this enigmatic creature in his Systema Naturae, classifying the Kraken among the cephalopods under the name Microcosmus marinus, although later mentions have been omitted. The legend of the Kraken, inhabiting the ocean depths, persists in the collective imagination, perpetuating the ancestral fear of sailors confronted with the unfathomable perils of the vast expanses of sea, where the boundary between reality and fiction blurs in the mysterious abysses of the ocean.

As far as iconography is concerned, the image engraved by Denys-Montfort depicting the “colossal octopus” is often cited, although it is distinct from the Kraken according to the French malacologist. Commentators characterize the attack on the ship as illustrating the “octopod of the Kraken”.

Le Poulpe Géant - Denys-Montfort
Le Poulpe Géant – Denys-Montfort

Lucas Pope draws on the ancestral source of the Kraken to bring terror to life in his game. Evoked by the desperate calls of the sirens, the Kraken emerges as the ultimate peril, its monstrous tentacles clawing at the Obra Dinn with terrifying agility. Like an incarnation of the ocean’s primordial forces, he becomes the catalyst for tragedy on board. Like ancient storytellers, who evoked its gigantic limbs wrapping around ships, Pope chooses to show only its tentacles, leaving it to players’ imaginations to complete the silhouette of this titanic creature. Thus, in the tradition of marine myths, Pope’s Kraken transcends the mere monster to become an archetypal force, symbolizing the human confrontation with the unfathomable abyss of the ocean and its untamable mysteries.

Representing death

Lucas Pope offers us another exploration of violence, this time in a slightly different, more personal and less socially focused way. Whereas Papers, Please hid its violence behind words and regulations, Return of the Obra Dinn revels in the moment of death, the moment when plans go off the rails. It turns a ship of corpses into a complex mathematical problem, with each death providing further insight into the ship and its occupants.

But not all violence is strictly interpersonal. The Obra Dinn, as we know, is a ship of rogue sailors. These were not just bandits in the classical sense of the word, but the more institutionalized and supervised robbery of the East India Company. Historically, this company was best known for its colonial expansionism in the Indian subcontinent, a reign of capitalist control that extended into the mid-to-late 19th century. Indeed, the East India Company stood among the most influential capitalist institutions in human history, and like any vestige of colonialism, its legacy leaves deep scars on every land it touched.

In Return of the Obra Dinn, the player is tasked with investigating the deaths and various claims associated with the ship Obra Dinn. But as in Papers, the violence you commit is not directly visible in your actions – you never fire a shot or stab anyone in Return. The violence of the space is left to the player’s reflection after the act. The game explores notions such as property, freedom and unjust rules, but without delving into them fully. This is partly due to the game’s very premise: revealing only the moments of each passenger’s death limits life on board, and therefore the information that can be communicated to the player.

There will be many violent deaths
There will be many violent deaths

The Obra Dinn, with its enigmatic voyage, embodies a violence that transcends the simple horrors it witnesses on deck; it plunges into the existential abyss of its own journey. Starting out as a merchant ship, the vessel is gradually transformed into a beacon for the inhabitants of the deep, drawn by the supernatural cargo it carries across treacherous waters. The catalyst for this descent into chaos seems deceptively banal: greed. Disgruntled sailors, grappling with their own discontent and seeking to escape the harsh realities of their existence, project their frustrations onto the foreign passengers from Formosa, now Taiwan. Despite warnings from the ship’s crew and other occupants, tensions remain unchecked, and the supernatural protections that once protected the Obra Dinn are broken. Doomed by its own hubris and the ire of the abyssal creatures, the ship is caught in a slow, inexorable spiral towards destruction.

The tragedy of the Obra Dinn’s voyage lies not only in the events aboard the ship, but also in the society that spawned it: a society where the goods and lives of the colonized were seen as goods to be plundered, to be seized without regard for those around them. The tragedy of the Obra Dinn thus goes beyond the ship itself to affect the systems in which it was born.

La violence dans Return of the Obra Dinn

In the final moments of the game, the player is presented with an insurance manifest listing all the passengers aboard the Obra Dinn and, in some cases, the circumstances of their death. These descriptions are succinct and to the point: “Shot dead”, “Drowned” or “Pierced”. They are written in the cold, calculating language of an insurance agent. What the manifesto fails to mention, however, is intent. It mentions the deaths, the people responsible and the places, and sometimes even whether the victim was qualified in his work or considered a deserter, but it is silent on intent. Intention, meanwhile, remains a complex concept, difficult to express adequately in an insurance context. In a poignant way, this evokes a deep criticism that the game raises, perhaps the most powerful of all. Indeed, the entire game experience is focused on solving this mystery – what happened to the Obra Dinn – but this is not the game’s ultimate objective. The main objective is to discover the circumstances surrounding each of the passengers’ deaths.

Return of the Obra Dinn presents itself as a game exploring meaningless violence. In this respect, it comes close to the spirit of Papers, Please, a game focused on meaning without violence. Aboard the Obra Dinn, each death is examined intimately, and as player and investigator, you are naturally drawn into the narrative, observing how each death leads to another. However, this isn’t exactly what insurance agents need. They just need the hard facts.

La mort par le Kraken

After all, these facts were the cornerstone of the East India Company. If it could purge its history of any human and contextual aspect, profits would be assured. So, just as in Papers, Please, at the end of the day, we’re left with numbers and statistics. Instead of wages, there are deaths, payments and fines. Human lives reduced to a mere profit component for the company, even in death. This greed reveals layers that cascade down the entire colonial system, confined within the walls of a dilapidated, storm-tossed ship.

The art of staging clues

Return of the Obra Dinn succeeds in immersing the player in the role of a real detective while infusing a unique touch of intimacy. Unlike many detective games, which give the player divine abilities or mechanisms to uncover clues and make the correct choices within a predefined plot, this game offers a more organic approach to investigation, without explicit guidance. And it works remarkably well. Many players testify to the sense of autonomy the game offers them, which is the cornerstone of the revolution Obra Dinn brings to the mystery game genre.

Herein lies the excellence of the game: rather than presenting a single scene of clues whose mystery is instantly solved, the vignette format allows players to see the same characters in different settings and contexts, encouraging the development of theories and the consolidation of their confidence. Multi-faceted gameplay tools, such as passenger logs and sketches, allow players to follow and cross-reference clues. The stage is set. The player’s job is to move from the impossible to the possible through clever deduction; the player decides what is impossible in order to conjecture what is feasible, in a similar way to solving a Sudoku.

The newspaper will accompany us throughout the game for our reflections.
The newspaper will accompany us throughout the game for our reflections.

In this way, the game constructs a procedural framework in which players discover the limits of what the game allows as viable clues (hint: virtually anything). Language, for example, serves as a subtle indicator; dress is a reliable marker of social status, maintaining a consistent pattern; even hammock numbering functions as a clue. In addition, observable patterns, such as the company of companions suggesting family ties or the absence of sailor attire on the individual at the helm, offer invaluable insight. These clues act as reservoirs of information. As players uncover different types of clues, they unlock an expanding arsenal of resources, much like a character in another game acquiring new weapons or tools. This iterative process becomes the cornerstone of the game: the discovery of one set of relics reveals others; the deciphering of clues to decipher fates reframes the range of potential outcomes for the remaining characters, allowing clues in this altered context to illuminate the fates of other individuals.

Ultimately, this system of clues celebrates not just the intelligence of a pre-written plot or set of mechanisms, but rather that of the players, of their own intelligence. The satisfaction of the game lies not in playing the role of a deified detective with special access to clues, but in the process of becoming a detective whose faculties unfold and develop as you, the player, build your clue sets. If Return of the Obra Dinn stopped there, it would still be a technically inspiring game and a revolution for the genre. But it goes further: its clues don’t just serve to find more clues and reveal fates, as an explicit, mechanical game would.

La boussole de Return of the Obra Dinn

The quest for these clues sheds light on the relationships, emotions and attitudes of the characters aboard the ship, stimulating players’ emotional investment. Through the midshipmen’s fates, we discover that all three were young officers-in-training, and all suffered heroic deaths. Charles Hershtik, for example, shows signs of weakness when he sees blood in his first vignette, eliciting mockery from another midshipman, but ends up sacrificing himself to defeat a sea monster. As for Thomas, as he is about to die, his thoughts turn to the tragic fate of his comrade Peter: Thomas tried to save Peter from the Kraken’s grip, but unfortunately, the powder Peter was holding exploded, causing his death. Thus, the game’s premise creates a captivating tragic genre: the tragedy lies in the how and what was accomplished along the way. Aspirants evolve from teasing boys to young men concerned about the fate of their companions, adding emotional and narrative depth to the gaming experience.

Resolving fates through the discovery of small clues to the circumstances and motives behind the characters’ deaths offers a deeper insight into their characters, contributing to the larger narrative of the chronology of events aboard the Obra Dinn. Observing different characters in different situations enhances our understanding of them and intensifies our curiosity as to their fate, prompting further exploration of the available vignettes. The clues scattered throughout Return of the Obra Dinn create a gameplay loop that keeps players coming back, eager to grasp the full tragedy behind each death. Once the game is complete and all the fates have been resolved, it may seem that there’s no reason to play again. However, the emotional power of the game continues to inspire the desire to return to the Obra Dinn. This is the true power of a captivating mystery game: it doesn’t just revolutionize a genre, but offers a deeply affecting and memorable experience that lasts well beyond the first gaming experience.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a captivating and profound work, imbued with narrative and visual complexity. Through its various historical inspirations, the game deftly explores universal themes such as violence, death, greed and human tragedy. By immersing players in a complex mystery aboard a ghost ship, the game succeeds in capturing the essence of the detective story while offering an immersive and emotionally rewarding experience.

With its innovative game mechanics and distinctive visual presentation, Lucas Pope manages to revolutionize the mystery game genre. Rather than passively guiding players through a pre-written story, the game offers them freedom of exploration and interpretation, encouraging them to become true detectives at the heart of a complex investigation. This interactive approach strengthens players’ emotional commitment, encouraging them to return again and again to discover all the secrets the ship holds.

Ultimately, Return of the Obra Dinn is not just a technically revolutionary game, but also a deeply moving artistic and emotional experience. Through its universal themes and innovative approach to gameplay, it offers players much more than mere entertainment: a reflection on the human condition, the nature of tragedy and the search for truth in the heart of darkness.


Fear of Big Things Underwater

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