Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope
We had a discussion the other day about violence in video games, especially those that seem to glorify or revel in the murder or assassination of others. I was quickly reminded that when we play a game about nukes we don’t necessarily feel more inclined to drop nukes on the world, but rather to test out a scenario and peer inside of our moral reserve to better understand who we are, how we have been indoctrinated, what beliefs we are holding onto.
This is what games are for – not to practice dying or believing that when we do we will somehow spring back to life – but rather doing things in virtual spaces that we cannot do in the shared space-time continuum of the Meatverse. Games also let us lose ourselves into fantasies that we could never realize in the real world. One of mine has been an obsession with ancient naval trade routes, their mysterious destinations, pirates and buried treasure – whether literal or things more esoteric than gold coins – so Return of the Obra Dinn was a natural fit.
In a time where The Curse of Oak Island is the number one rated show in the history of…well…The History Channel, public fascination with the mysterious alternate history of the Plantagenets, Mary Magdalene, Francis Bacon, the Templars and Pope Innocent II, the Temple of Solomon, the Freemasons and Orkney, Rosslyn and Rennes-Le-Chateau are at an all-time high.
I have been tracking the history of Oak Island for 35 years. I was dismayed when Dan Brown appropriated Holy Blood, Holy Grail for The Da Vinci Code, because it would only muddy the waters of scientific research once more. But here we are now, with the lights on – or the smoke screen.
Learning about Oak Island is like reverse engineering almost a thousand years of only marginally recorded alternate history, discovering its shape and scope only by way of contours, insinuation and trace elements left behind. It is a story about pirates and kings and ancient tribes, Popes and despots and secret societies.
Yes, More Papers
All of these dynamics – in pursuit of veiled or deliberately obscured truths – are at play in Lucas Pope’s incredibly and appropriately stylized follow-up to Papers, Please. Knowing that it is the same mind that created the formal “immigration agent rubber-stamping” title that changed the game scene makes me even more confident about solving the mystery of this ill-fated voyage.
You will set out to fill a journal with facts and findings of what happened on this fictional ghost ship – I actually looked online to see if the Obra Dinn was ever a real ship – once the property of the East India Company, and lost when seemingly, the crew mutinied against the captain. This is done in a series of embodied, three-dimensional tableaus that you circumnavigate. And using various clues, memories, observations, scraps of paper and photos, you will piece together who was who and what was what.
A Mystery of History
Pope uses sound design – sound effects and simple lines of suggestive text to create much richer environments in the imagination than if he were attempting to be overly literal with the mise-en-scene. Indeed, the whole look of the piece is as though you were playing on an old Macintosh, IBM, Commodore 64 or other old 1-bit monochrome display systems, all of which can be selected in the options menu.
The joy, though, is rifling through what appear to be historical documents, letters, logs and charts, cobbling together a story about what led to the uprising, who were the winners and losers, and how far up the chain the betrayal began is breathtaking. Piecing in information from every angle about blurry individuals in group photos or deducing the behaviors of crew members, working from a manifest, is all detective work one could ever hope to play with.
I should note, however, that this game will be significantly harder for some than others – for example distinguishing dialects by audio cues or sometimes picking out details in these line etchings. Ultimately, though, it promotes itself as a game of deductive reasoning, and it fully delivers on that promise, so approach it accordingly.
Though this game would be incredible in actual Virtual Reality, it creates all the same effects on a 2D screen with proper speakers. If detective work and abstract vignettes are not your bag, this may be too “walking simulator” or arty to keep you diverted. But for those who understand the sort of research I have described above – and feel the same kind of passion for it – this is the treasure 200 feet below.
Return of the Obra Dinn is available via Steam.
Watch the official trailer for Return of the Obra Dinn below: