Game developer Lucas Pope is best known for Papers, Please, a "dystopian document thriller" that puts players in the role of a immigration inspector for a crumbling Soviet republic. His next game — Return of the Obra Dinn — looks just as bracingly inventive, with players tasked with puzzling out the fate of a merchant ship's crew in 1808, using a time-traveling pocket watch. (I know, right?) Pope first showed a demo for Obra Dinn all the way back in 2014, but yesterday released a new version from GDC available to download from his site for Mac and Windows — and it's definitely worth your time.
Obra Dinn's graphics were inspired by old Mac games
It's a short demo, but incredibly atmospheric, thanks to the use of radio play-style dialogue, some great voice acting, and a one-bit graphic style. Pope says that it was this aesthetic — rather than any story or gameplay idea — that was the inspiration for Obra Dinn. "My first computer was a Mac Plus," writes Pope. "I've always had a nostalgia-softened spot in my heart for one-bit graphics. I'd like to capture the detailed black & white look of old Mac games in a realtime 1st person game. I plan to push it grittier and less cartoon-like than those old games; the hard part will be keeping everything legible without it becoming an unreadable mess of dithered pixels."
Pope definitely seems to have achieved this, and players can even switch between different types of one-bit rendering — whether that's for a Macintosh monitor, IBM, or Commodore 1084. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, Obra Dinn's gameplay fits extremely well with this look. Players are given a pocket watch which allows them to replay the final moments of the many corpses onboard the abandoned Obra Dinn, and toward the end of the demo it's revealed that the aim of the game is to record the cause of death (or not) of the 50+ crew in the ship's logbook.
The demo only allows you to explore the fate of a handful of people, but it leaves you with a clear impression of dark, unexplored depths. There are snippets of a mutiny, of lost treasure, and an attack by some sort of tentacled sea monster — all of which are extremely tantalizing. Whether this post-mortem mystery mechanic will hold up for a full game remains to be seen (will it become tedious to try and differentiate between a pair of near-identical Cornish sailors based solely on their tattoos?), but this early experience of Obra Dinn is very promising.