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Why Return of the Obra Dinn is my game of the year

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A story that begins at the end

2018 has been a good year for video games. From blockbuster epics to smaller indie experiences to inventive takes on VR, the breadth and variety of games that came out over the last 12 months is astounding. To celebrate, Verge staff members are writing essays on their own personal favorite games, and what made them stand out above the crowd.

Return of the Obra Dinn begins at the end. The end of a story, the end of a life, the end of a barrel of a gun.

It begins with a body, a desiccated pile of bones moldering on the deck of a ship that set out from London in 1802 to round the Cape of Good Hope and washed up five years later without a living soul aboard. You arrive as the most quotidian and morbid of figures, an insurance adjuster assigned to calculate the financial liability of the East India Company. Your objective is to determine the fate — and often, the precise manner of death — of each person on board, their culpability in the tragedy, and the larger series of events that left the ship abandoned and adrift.

You’re given an unusual tool to aid in your investigation: a pocket watch described as a “Memento Mortem” — Latin for “remember death.” Wave it over the pile of bones, or any human remains, and it shivers violently until you open it and are transported back in time to the moment of their demise, a frozen snapshot of pain and fury.

Some spoilers for Return of the Obra Dinn follow.

Return of the Obra Dinn

Visually, Return of the Obra Dinn is a marvel; it is the best sort of anachronism, a 1-bit story rendered in the monochrome of a different time, a dithered love letter to the black-and-white Mac games of the 1980s. Like the best black-and-white movies made today, it is not merely an exercise in nostalgia but a striking aesthetic choice that is both form and function, an invocation of digital antiquity that defines it and is defined by it.

On the title screen, a pixelated moon hangs white and singular behind the rigging of the ship, its light shimmering on the water of an impossibly dark sea. From the vantage point of the present, it’s the digital equivalent of finding an old photograph in a trunk, wondering who these people were, how they lived and loved and died — and then walking inside of it.

Open your pocket watch, and enter. You are given a ledger, a book where you are tasked with cataloging the story of the Obra Dinn, and how it went from a 60-person crew to a derelict, how each soul aboard met their end. It is your mandate to record the hows, the whys, the dark and terrible secrets and decisions that emptied its decks. You will learn many things about the people who inhabited it through the course of your inquiry. Primarily, you’ll discover that these were consummately loyal officers, driven to murder their superiors by a series of events as impossible as they were inevitable.

Then there are the monsters. They arrive, at first, in a penultimate chapter called “The Doom,” where a kraken rises from the deep, and wraps its terrible arms slowly and inevitably around a ship and all the people who have survived to face it. It moves backward, death by death, into the awe and dread of demons with eight legs rising from the bottom of the ocean to take their vengeance, a punishment as deserved as it is unfair.

Return of the Obra Dinn is the product of a polymath named Lucas Pope, the creator of the ruthlessly incisive and award-winning immigration simulator Papers, Please. He wrote, programmed, illustrated, and scored the game entirely on his own, which is as impressive as it is infuriating. It is a horror story in reverse, a narrative pinball bouncing from one set of eyes to another across a gradually unfolding and macabre catastrophe, via the final, desperate moment of each human being when their light goes out. We begin with the knowledge that always comes with history: that it is already written.

The play Romeo and Juliet begins, famously, with a prologue that is epilogue — two people have died, and are already buried. All that remains is to discover the reasons, the rationalizations, the engraved moments of fury and terror and passion that brought us from there to here. This is the story of the Obra Dinn: the corpses have already been thrown into the ocean, torn limb from limb by nameless horrors of the deep. They line the ocean floor without gravestones or obituaries, except for the ones you decide to write.

The ends of stories are funny things, because they are both defining and arbitrary. They are both lies and truth. Because no story truly ends until every person inside of it is dead, until every light has gone out, until it is left, finally, to the people who were not there and cannot remember it to remember.

It is easy to see these moments from the vantage point of the present, in the unforgiving fluorescent light of hindsight, rather than the hot pulse of adrenaline that demanded a gun be fired, a punch thrown, a scream torn from a throat. We do this with our lives, too; we look back at the complicated tangle of decisions that brought us from here to there and we simplify. We look back from the safe distance of the present, and we imagine there could have been a different ending, a fiction that is as safe as it is fallacious.

In the great and terrible wilderness of history, countless millions have died badly, died foolishly, died without funerals or eulogies or gravestones. They died nonetheless. History is the story that we make of them as the camera pulls back and we ask, what did it all mean, if anything? How did we come from setting out toward the horizon, the wind in our hair and at our backs, to ugly, inexorable ends?

The story the game tells is not a pretty one; the past is not a line, leading from where we started into the moment where we stand. It is a knot of moments and decisions tangled over and unto themselves, through the lens of a thousand petty passions and prejudices and personal grudges. Hindsight is a ruthless judge, one that demands that we live with our choices, with the decisions that define us, most of all when we are dead. Return of the Obra Dinn is about writing the story of the past, about doing it justice, about the humanity we can find in our mistakes as well as our moments of heroism.

Return of the Obra Dinn is about the horror of history, the horror of a tragedy in reverse, the horror of inevitability. It is about what it means to set out again toward the unknown in the face of it, toward a horizon that recedes into the distance the closer we walk with the knowledge that our story does not belong to us, not entirely. That we do not know how our stories will end when we begin them, how our adventures or relationships or jobs will end, or how the future will regard us from the comfortable vantage point of its remove.

It is about the realization that we cannot change the past, but that we can do it justice — for as long as someone remembers it, or us, long after we are gone.