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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Dead men tell dark tales in the chillingly beautiful Return Of The Obra Dinn

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Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?


We’re less than a week out from Halloween, that pumpkin-slathered nexus of the Original Spooky Season. So it feels fitting to take a minute to highlight one of the best new horror games to hit the indie scene in years: Lucas Pope’s Return Of The Obra Dinn, which arrived on Steam last week.

Accompanied by the tongue-in-cheek tagline “An insurance adventure with minimal color,” Pope’s latest game is a love affair with any number of wonderfully niche things: old-school computer monitors, nautical horror, observational detective work, scrapbooking, and more. Like his last game, the upsettingly prescient dystopian immigration simulator Papers, Please, Pope’s new effort presents the players with an obsessive interest in gorgeous retro-styled graphics and the pleasures of incomplete information, forcing you to piece together how a merchant vessel in good repute ended up returning to English waters with a dead captain, a missing crew, and no obvious signs of how it all went down.

Luckily you have an edge, in the form of a magical compass that allows you to hear the last things each crew member heard, and to view (and walk around inside) a snapshot of the moment of their deaths. These sequences deliver the game’s greatest aesthetic highlights, as a perfectly pitched soundtrack plays over increasingly grisly tableaux of all the ways—some more gruesome or fantastical than others—that the Obra Dinn’s sailors got themselves got. (The first time you walk through a frozen moment of a giant tentacle ripping a man in half, you may start to suspect that worse things than simple mutiny went down on this particular boat.) Meanwhile, you’re listening and looking carefully for any clues that might help you to identify the murderer or victim, slowly filling in a complete picture of how it all went down.

Obra Dinn’s cleverest touch—aside, again, from the visuals, which stretch themselves to prove how absolutely gorgeous a single-color world can be—is the way it makes a game out of the natural mystery-solving process of “walking simulator” games like Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. Rather than simply putting together a story in your head, you’re expected to put your guesses and inferences down on paper, with the game (eventually) confirming whether you were wrong or right. Sometimes this can be a bit clunky—there are at least a few identities that can only really be “solved” by messing around with the game’s three-at-a-time system for verifying guesswork—but when it works, it provides the feeling of being a real, if supernaturally augmented, detective. It helps that the story you’re investigating is a darkly engaging one; nothing says “happy Halloween” like digging through the dark history of a ship that traveled deep into waters that man was never truly meant to plumb.