At first, Return of the Obra Dinn seems impossible. The latest game from Papers, Please creator Lucas Pope tasks you with solving the mystery of the titular Obra Dinn, a ship that washed up on shore in 1807, five years after it was believed to be lost at sea. What happened to all 60 of its crewmembers? You don’t have much to go on: a list of the crew, a few maps and illustrations, and an empty ship to explore. But Obra Dinn is a masterpiece that reveals itself very slowly. You don’t understand the true scale of the experience until you steadily start uncovering clues, and before you know it, you’ve become obsessed with the fate of the ship.
The most important part of the experience is a magical watch that can temporarily transport you to the exact moment a person died. When you first climb aboard the Obra Dinn, you’ll see a skeleton in a tattered uniform, with flies buzzing around it. As soon as you get close, you’ll automatically pull out a what looks like a beautiful, intricate pocket watch with a skull on its face that can transport you back in time to witness the death.
Obra Dinn plays out like a 3D exploration game — think Gone Home or Firewatch — where you view things from a first-person perspective and your options for interacting with the world are limited. You can walk around and open a few doors, but that’s about it. This makes the stopwatch your main tool.
These stopwatch scenes all play out the same way. It starts out with a black screen and some sort of audio; you’ll hear snippets of a conversation, or maybe the last, dying breath (or shriek) of a crewmember. Then you have a few moments to explore the moment of the death where time has stopped. You’ll see blood splatter frozen midair and the static cloud of a bullet fired from an old-timey gun. Some of the scenes are downright grisly, and there are a lot of them since the Obra Dinn featured a crew of 60. From these scenes, you have to paint a picture of what actually happened aboard the boat during its five-year absence.
For each member of the crew, you’re asked to uncover three things: their name, how they died, and, if necessary, who killed them. Cause of death is usually pretty easy to determine; it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to see when someone is crushed under a barrel. The trickier part is matching names to faces. Often, you’ll need to scour and rewatch each scene for every possible clue.
Sometimes you get lucky; a killer might say the name of their victim, or vice versa, before a murder. Often, though, it’s about piecing together smaller clues to paint a bigger picture. You might figure out someone’s identity based on their rank or nationality, which are details provided in the crew manifest. But most of the time, you’re never totally certain — at least not right away. The game only confirms identities in groups of three, so you’ll spend a lot of time guessing, unsure of your deductions until they’re confirmed.
You also have to contend with a disjointed narrative. The game takes place across 10 chapters, but you won’t see them in order, adding a further wrinkle. It’s only toward the end that you get a full grasp of what actually happened. Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the Obra Dinn has to be one of the unluckiest cargo ships in history.
One of the most interesting things about Obra Dinn is that you don’t actually have to solve anything. You can simply watch all of the death scenes, one by one, and not bother with jotting down answers in the in-game book. But you won’t get a complete picture of what happened. (You’ll also get a very brief, disappointing ending if you play that way.)
Figuring out all of those connections is what makes the game so engrossing. I actually kept a notebook and pen with me the entire time I played the game, writing down names and connections, creating a strange web of characters who I knew almost nothing about. It reminded me of my time with Her Story, an interactive crime drama where you have to pull details from a series of often unreliable video interviews. Both games are about creating some sense of clarity in a confusing situation.
The fact that you can dig in as much or as little as you want to is part of what makes Obra Dinn so incredible. You can be obsessive like me, with a notebook that looks like it’s ripped out of A Beautiful Mind, or you can simply enjoy the grim, shocking story as it unfolds in its strange, disjointed manner. (Pope estimates the game can take anywhere from four to 60 hours to complete, depending on how deep you want to go. My first playthrough lasted just under six hours.)
The tale of the Obra Dinn and its crew is fascinating either way, and it won’t take long before the game’s Macintosh-inspired low-fi visuals burn their way into your brain. The task ahead of you is enormous, but, eventually, you’ll realize it’s not actually impossible after all.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available now on Mac and PC.