Making games with an investigative gameplay aspect actually feel like an investigation is quite the challenge. Return of the Obra Dinn, developed by Lucas Pope and published by 3909, elegantly shows how it can be done.
Most games with an investigative aspect are adventure-puzzle games of one sort — an investigation is a puzzle of sort, after all. In a classic inventory-based adventure, investigations are easy to do, as they ultimately just serve as a backdrop for whatever items the player combines or hand over to NPCs. Return of the Obra Dinn is very different.
However, this also means that there is generally just one way to approach things. Dead ends either serve no purpose, beside obscuring the actual solution, or have to be run into as part of the plot. Mixing things up is certainly possible, but having a truly branching plot and equally branching puzzles would be huge endeavour.
It has been done, up to various degrees, but not always effectively. Return of the Obra Dinn shows how it can be done — though to be fair to other adventure games, it is not a classic murder investigation. It does feature a whole bunch of dead people, however.
That pile of bodies is the key to Return of the Obra Dinn‘s formula: instead of simply focussing on one case, everyone and everything in the game is the case. You take on the role of an investigator who has just arrived on the titular Obra Dinn, a ship which had been lost at sea for years. What with this being the early 19th century, your tools are somewhat limited.
You do, however, come equipped with a more-or-less magical pocket watch. This watch allows you to return to certain moment in time. Each of these moments tell the story of a crew member or passenger of the Obra Dinn, specifically their demise. Most deaths are connected to others, or give information on other characters and events that happened during the ship’s journey.
Not only does this allow the player to witness the fate of the Obra Dinn in a nonlinear fashion, but the game even pushes for this to happen. After all, we already know that pretty much everyone is dead — but finding out how and why they died is the interesting part.
It is also Return of the Obra Dinn‘s core puzzle mechanic. In addition to the supernatural pocket watch, you have an initially blank logbook. With time, it will be filled with faces, and each of these faces needs a name and a cause of death. Most of the time only indirect hints are given. Did this guy mention his brother? Check the passenger list for people with the same family name. Was that a Welsh accent? See which crew member is Welsh.
The Obra Dinn carried a lot of people, from an international crew to aristocrats from Formosa. Thankfully, the game does not require you to create a multi-dimensional relationship matrix, only to reveal that you identified one of the first victims incorrectly. Instead, you can check whether your assumptions were correct every three fully identified victims.
This strikes a nice balance between giving the player a sense of definitive progress without giving too much information away. Additionally, Return of the Obra Dinn‘s progress is nonlinear. Happily making guesses and carefully gathering as much information as possible before making a decision are equally viable methods of progressing.
Naturally, this is not an approach that works for every adventure game, but it does highlight that tying both gameplay and design directly to the story was the right choice for Return of the Obra Dinn, and make it the outstanding game it is.
Return of the Obra Dinn is now available for PC and Mac.