Return of the Obra Dinn is scarier and more adventurous than it looks

“I got lucky with Papers, Please,” Lucas Pope explains as I wait in line at PAX Australia to play his follow-up, The Return of the Obra Dinn. “I didn’t market Papers, Please at all, and I had no expectations for it.  But it was really successful, and as far as my successes go, it’s self-publishing and no marketing. 

“I’ve sort of dug myself a hole and now I’m sitting in it, basically,” he continued. “With this game, it’s something I’m making for myself. It was a total fetish of mine to make a black and white 1-bit game. It’s total indie bullshit actually, to make a game like this and expect people to play it, but that’s where I’m at. Papers, Please sold well enough that if this one doesn’t sell, I’ll be okay.”

The Return of Obra Dinn is a difficult game to demo at a loud gaming convention, though Papers, Please would have been too – and that’s one of our favourite games. It needs your undivided attention, which is a lot to ask when there’s a Kirby cosplayer eating a pulled pork bun just across the show floor. Still, once I had the headset on and controller in hands, I was lost in it. It’s an austere and beautiful game, but its art style – borrowed from the stylings of 1-bit Mac Plus games – eventually dovetails with its macabre plot.

Set in 1807, the Obra Dinn mysteriously returns to port after disappearing somewhere between the UK and China. The East Indian trade boat is damaged and everyone is dead. As an insurance adjuster, you’re sent aboard to determine how each of the victims died, in order to pay out any owed salaries to the families of the deceased. 

It sounds like a prelude to some good old fashioned paper-pushing ala Papers, Please, but it’s not. As you explore the Obra Dinn for evidence of the ship’s fate, interactive set-pieces shuttle the player into static recreations of the violent event. At first, this event seems like a routine pirate invasion until suddenly (and without warning) it’s something much weirder, much creepier. Exploring the ship and determining the fate of each passenger requires a lot of cross-checking and unguided detective work, but it’s the way the story unfolds during this busywork which intrigues the most.

“It’s kind of like an adventure story set up,” Pope said. “I had a few different ideas to follow, and when I started researching these old sailing ships it seemed very interesting to me. Normally when you run into these topics it’s pirates and all that, but for me, it’s interesting how these trade ships established the English colonies and branched out and expanded the world so much.

“Also, from a construction perspective, there’s a lot of information about how these ships were made,” he continued. “Modelling the ship was fun, and getting things accurate and right was interesting to me. As I was going the story kinda bubbled and I started to get interested with how I could do that. I never sat down and made any final decision about anything, it just flowed as I was developing it.”

Many will conflate the weapon-less, first-person navigation of Obra Dinn with “walking sims” in the vein of Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, or Gone Home. While this game requires the same languid, unrushed player temperament, it’s even more minimal. There is dialogue, but it’s sparse and usually delivered without context. There are characters, but they don’t move. The sound design wavers between uneasy minimalism and melodrama, and the whole package carries the ineffable weirdness of some long buried silent movie, deemed too dreadful and frightening for its time. There’s a refreshing lack of sentimentality in Obra Dinn, too – it feels cold, and it doesn’t labour to ensure that you “get” its mood or intents. 

“There are no overtones or undertones in this game,” Pope said, responding to whether Obra Dinn will have as foregrounded a theme as Papers, Please. “The game’s not done yet, and there will be some empathy or pathos here, but it won’t have a central theme like Papers, Please had.”

Pope is in a pretty enviable place for a developer inclined to make unconventional videogames. After the unexpected success of Papers, Please he’s able to work on whatever he pleases, but he’s unsure whether Obra Dinn will go down as well as his first success. “I finished Papers, Please in nine months and this has been in development for two years already, so I feel extremely lucky on that one,” he said.

"I mean I feel lucky in general, because it was a weird game that I made for myself that exploded, in a way that I would never have predicted. Working on [Obra Dinn], there’s a lot of pressure on me, internal pressure, to sort of match that success. But I’m objective enough to know that there’s no way I will match that success again. I think this will be a good game, but it won’t sell as well, and it won’t have the same impact.”

The Return of the Obra Dinn is due to release in  2017. There’s a free demo on of a build demo’ed at GDC earlier this year. The build I played was newer, but if you want a feel for the game’s atmosphere, you’re well advised to check it out.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.