Video game review: Developer continues to play with the idea of game-player as worker in 'Return of the Obra Dinn'

  • Developer Lucas Pope continues to play with the idea of game-player as worker in "Return of the Obra Dinn."

    Developer Lucas Pope continues to play with the idea of game-player as worker in "Return of the Obra Dinn." Courtesy of Devolver Digital

By Christopher Byrd
Washington Post
Posted1/5/2019 7:27 AM

"Return of the Obra Dinn"

Developed by: Lucas Pope

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Available on: Mac, PC

One of the more interesting video game designers on the scene today is Lucas Pope, whose games conspicuously tinker with the notion of the player as worker. Pope leaped to the top of the indie world after "Papers, Please," his 2013 game about a hard-pressed immigration officer, was critically and commercially well-received.

In "Papers, Please," players pore over documents to determine who may and may not enter the fictional country of Arstotzka. The challenge of the game comes from trying to meet increasingly demanding performance goals being handed down by one's superiors while holding on to some sort of ethical standard. (For instance, should you turn away a refugee whose papers are out of order knowing that she faces certain death in her homeland, or do you admit her into the country and run the risk of being penalized for not abiding by the rules.)

Documents also play a key role in Pope's latest game, "Return of the Obra Dinn," where players are cast in the role of a 19th-century insurance inspector. Reflecting on his penchant for constructing games around humble workers, Pope, in an interview with Gamasutra, said, "You know, there are people around the world who do all kinds of jobs all the time and many of those jobs are boring and mundane but those people have interesting lives to me."

As an insurance inspector for the East India Company it falls to you to figure out what happened to a merchant sea vessel thought to have perished at sea. This vessel recently turned up -- without any living souls aboard -- near the English coastal town of Falmouth. Wandering the decks of the Obra Dinn will bring you into contact with traces of the mortal remains of many of the ship's crew and passengers.


Standing in the vicinity of such forensic evidence causes your avatar to brandish a pocket watch. Clicking a button then allows you to witness the final moments of a person's life. An audio clip is played before you are presented with a static scene that shows the instant of the person's death. Around such a scene you can wander and try to draw inferences on who was speaking, who was present, and who died by what circumstance. These scenes are jotted down in a book.

Your workbook also carries with it a few sketches of the Obra Dinn's passengers by the ship's artist, as well as maps, and a list of the passengers and crew. At the start of the game, it tells you to consult these materials then warns that "decisive information will be rare."

At first, I found the game a bit overwhelming. The prospect of trying to uncover the fates of the 60 people seemed like it would entail a lot of work. The story is told out of order, and people in the audio clips rarely address each other by name. Sadly, I let panic get the best of me. I spent too much time early on revisiting scenes, trying to wring out every last drop of detail rather than attempt to uncover as much information as possible and then try to piece it together.

Here are but a few of the things that happened on the Obra Dinn: one man was killed indecorously on a toilet; another because he let the anticipation of a fine meal get the best of him. A woman shot a man from a lifeboat. A man shot another who was plotting mutiny. A woman was strangled by a siren. A man was ripped apart by a tentacled beast, etc. When you work out the fates of three different people, by matching their name to the artist's sketch in the workbook and identifying their ultimate fate, the game acknowledges your correct deductions.

Not infrequently did such moments give me reason to clap my hands. Noticing little details and listening to how people relate to each other, like who calls whom boss, are of the utmost importance to puzzling out what's going on. Eventually, when I came to know many of the passengers by sight and by name, I felt sort of accomplished. (Ha.)

"The Return of the Obra Dinn" is a stunning work of craftsmanship. Pope, who handled every aspect of its production himself, has created a work that celebrates scrutinizing details. "Return of the Obra Dinn" is the best game with one-bit graphics to come along since ... uh, you got me.

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