Lucas Pope sure knows how to undersell his games — which, by all accounts, continue to push the limit of what we can expect from the medium.
The one-man powerhouse first exploded onto the scene with his wildly popular and morally existential bureaucratic puzzle gamePapers, Please.Five years later, he’s released the equally undefinableReturn of the Obra Dinn, described on his website as “An Insurance Adventure with Minimal Colour.”
LOL — I guess that’s one way to put it!
Showing an unmatched skill for turning the most seemingly boring scenarios and basic mechanics into something ingenious, Pope’s new game is in a league of its own.
You play as an insurance claims adjuster in the early 19th century. Brought to the merchant ship Obra Dinn (which summons similarities to theunsolved case of the Mary Celeste), you must figure out the specifics of the tragic mystery that left all its passengers either dead or missing.
Uncovering the story of their deaths does not happen chronologically, and the tidbits you get come in a jumbled freeze-frame. The full picture takes grueling detective work on your part, with only two tools at your disposal: 1) a journal with a map of the ship, log of the crew, and artist rendering of them to help keep track; and 2) a pocket watch that summons the final moments of their horrific deaths.
Obra Dinnis more immediately gripping than the multi-million dollar blockbusterRed Dead Redemption 2
You gather evidence, and the journal fills up with the added clues that you must then make sense of yourself. And here’s what I mean aboutObra Dinnbeing as inexplicably compelling asPapers, Please: Besides these slivers of unmoving violence, most of the game takes place in that journal.
Piecing together the facts in the midst of the chaos, you deduce who died and how (and, at times, by whose hand) in each flashback by flipping back between the action and your notebook. Describing it, you’d think that sounds like the most cumbersomely tedious game ever. Just like you might assume a game about being a border patrol officer stamping papers would be.
Instead,Obra Dinnis more immediately gripping than the multi-million dollar blockbusterRed Dead Redemption 2,a game which released only a week after and likely ruined its chances of getting the attention it deserves. But whileObra Dinnmay have less money and gloss, it’s endlessly more successful while using far less than most games — and maybe that’s the secret.
Pope has a masterful understanding of how to squeeze every ounce of potential out of a minimalist approach. He also uses everything that’snotthere to further intrigue you.
The brilliance ofObra Dinnlies in its expert withholding of information, doling out droplets of a non-chronological narrative told only in moments of suspended panic. It’s the key to every well-told mystery, and this one never lets up on that tension.
Flashbacks become tableaus you return to obsessively, desperate to restore some humanity to the rotting pile of bones their memories left behind.
Then there’s the aesthetic, a technical marvel of 1-bit noir. Yes, you read that correctly: This game is working with seven fewer bits than your original Gameboy. And unlike in most old-school-looking games, the 1-bit rendering ofObra Dinnis not for arbitrary nostalgia.
It adds more obfuscation to the already-mysterious atmosphere, heightening your panic as you try to make sense of these roughly drawn figures frozen in pain.
Also likePapers, Please,Obra Dinn‘s art style defies the graphics arms race of so many other games, instead establishing empathy for purposefully low resolution caricatures. The flashbacks become uncanny tableaus you return to obsessively, desperate to restore some humanity to the rotting pile of bones their memories left behind.
The jarring contrast between life and death — between 3D people caught in a slaughter and their unwitting expressions in a photograph, the living tragedy versus the cold facts in your journal — lends an eeriness that you won’t find in any other murder mystery, video game or otherwise.
This is what the real potential of video game narratives looks like.
The future of the medium does not lie solely in excess or attempts to replicate “cinematic” filmmaking, despite what breathless coverage of triple-A games likeRed Dead Redemption 2might have you believe.
Obra Dinnshows how the non-linearity of games has incredible yet under-explored possibilities. Its stylized look takes advantage of the inherent limitations of representing humans through pixels, rather than trying to trick the eye into thinking it’s watching a movie.
I guess you could callReturn of the Obra Dinnan “insurance adventure.” I guess you could call it a puzzle game. I guess its label of “indie game” will regrettably limit its reach.
But a more accurate label forReturn of the Obra Dinnis “one of the must-play video games of 2018.”