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Video Game / Return of the Obra Dinn

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This unknown soul met an unknown fate.

"Hoist it up in a few minutes."
"Eh? How?"

The year is 1802, and maritime shipping across the Atlantic Ocean is at its peak. One such ship, the Obra Dinn, begins a voyage from England to the Orient. With all passengers and crewmen onboard, sixty people sail out from Britain, and are expected back within a few months. Six months into the voyage, the ship fails to meet its rendezvous point, all attempted contact is unsuccessful, and the ship is declared lost at sea.

In 1807, the ship finally returns.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a non-linear adventure detective game developed by Lucas Pope, creator of Papers, Please, and released in 2018. The game is played from a First Person viewpoint, and features an rather unusual graphical style, namely 1-bit monochromatic graphics, inspired by games on early Macintosh systems. You play as an insurance investigator from the British East India Company who boards the ship in the middle of the night to figure out just what happened to the crew and passengers. A man named Henry Evans sends you a log of all the passengers on board, and a mysterious pocket watch called the "Memento Mortem" which can create an image of a person's exact moment of death. With these in hand, you set out to discover just where everyone disappeared to, and what fates have befallen the people onboard.


The game's core gameplay feature is that corpses are strewn about the ship. By finding and interacting with a corpse, the Memento Mortem will teleport you to a strange pocket dimension where the exact moment of that person's death will appear. Everything else past that is up to you — finding out how they died, who killed them, and why they were killed is the primary purpose of the game. The game is loosely divided into chapters which serve to illuminate who died onboard and why. This is not easy — there are very few easy answers, and you need to use your brain to piece together exactly who everyone was. Keeping track of everything from their names to their ethnicity to even what they look like and what their role was onboard is essential to uncovering what occurred onboard the ship.

Due to being a murder mystery game, beware of spoilers. Be warned that the spoilers here are even more extreme than usual for a murder-mystery game - due to the nature of the gameplay (which often revolves around identifying individuals), it's impossible to even mention people's names without potentially major spoilers.


The Obra Dinn shipped with the following tropes:

  • 100% Completion: Only by accurately recording the identity and means of death of people in every other chapter will the player be permitted by their benefactor to learn what happened in Chapter 8: "The Bargain".
  • Altum Videtur: Your pocketwatch.
    Memento Mortem — Remember Death.
  • Anachronic Order: The game starts with Chapter 10, "The End," showing the final few people who died before the ship became a Ghost Ship. Once "The End" has been cleared, the rest of the boat opens for exploration. This means the player can experience the story in just about any order, but certain deaths can only be unlocked by seeing other deaths first. In particular, Chapter 4: "The Calling" is experienced entirely in reverse order.
  • Anachronism Stew: The author has gone on record stating accuracy was attempted to the best of his ability but there wasn't time or space to include every single detail and sometimes a line had to be drawn. That said...
    • One of the causes of death you can ascribe to a person is referred to as "electrocution". This word wasn't invented until the late 19th century and was used only to describe executions completed by use of an electric chair. "Electro" plus "execution." Furthermore, there were no electrical devices or anything else that would result in an accidental electrocution as we would call it today on the ship. The term must be used to describe one death: a crew member being struck by lightning.
      • It may also be used to describe the magical beam that kills It-Beng Sia and stuns the mermaids.
    • The names of the Chinese crew members follow the modern-day convention for transcribing Mandarin Chinese, called pinyin, introduced by the People's Republic of China in the 1950s. In the time period the game is set, "Li" and "Zhang" would be written down as "Lee" and "Chang" instead, based on their approximate pronunciation in English.
  • Anti-Frustration Features:
    • The game will only unblur a crew member's face when you have the ability to deduce their identity, making it easier to do process of elimination. There's also has a bookmark feature, allowing you to skip through the book by pressing on tabs to bring you to the next page with information on it. You can bookmark specific crew members as well, allowing you to mark every single memory they appear in on the map.
    • By zooming in on a person in a memory, holding it on them allows you to see their picture in the illustrations, making it easier to identify some of the more obscured figures.
    • Sometimes, the cause of death can be pretty vague, and you can hesitate between two possibilities. Generally, both options will be considered valid by the game. For instance, seaman John Naples dies because his leg was cut off by the captain's steward Filip Dahl. So is the cause of death "dismemberment" or "attacked with a sword?" Either one is counted as correct.
      • "Fell overboard" and "drowned" are largely interchangeable.
  • Apocalyptic Log: With your stopwatch acting as your window into the past, rather than piecing together an Apocalyptic Log, you're writing one. The game takes cues from the environmental storytelling techniques introduced with Immersive Sim games like the Shock games, and makes their very lack of completeness the linchpin of the game's mechanics as well as the backbone of the game's entire plot outside of the framing device of the player's presence aboard the Obra Dinn.
  • Artifact of Death: The Formosan chest seems to kill anyone who uses it through columns of fire. It-Beng Sia and Filip Dahl both have their arms melted down to the bone because of the chest.
  • Artistic License – Ships: The author has gone on record saying he aimed for accuracy in the ship's design, but he could not achieve perfection and some allowances needed to be made for the sake of the game. Some standouts are:
    • The rigging is sparse for the size of the masts, even when the ship is in tact. This was done for the sake of simplicity.
    • The captain's cabin room lacks doors that would be necessary to keep wind and rain out of the cabin.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: Say what you will about the Captain, but the man is pushing at least 40, likely 50 (evidenced by him telling his steward "Twenty years my steward!" in one scene,) and he still fights off, and kills, two other sailors who are presumably much younger than him; shrugging off strikes to the chest from a sharpened wooden stick and a literal stab to the back with a knife. He also kills two mermaids by himself. Granted, they were encaged, but they had already killed a lot of people near-effortlessly.
  • Badass Bureaucrat: Downplayed example, but the player character themselves. They press on and on through horrific visions of death, gore, and terrible sea monsters, all in the name of accurate insurance investigation.
  • Badass Normal: Most members of the crew qualify to some degree. Some members, however, stand out as their actions on the doomed voyage are revealed to the player.
    • Despite his immediate apparent Sanity Slippage, Captain Robert Witterel's murders of multiple men in close combat the first set of deaths the player uncovers. The captain killed the three men when he had knives sticking out of him. He also absolutely doesn't mess around when bargaining with mermaids, as revealed in the Bargain chapter; while the mermaids were being held captive, he ordered them to call off the kraken by stabbing and shooting them until the last one complied.
    • In perhaps the greatest Dying Moment of Awesome in the game, carpenter Winston Smith point blank explodes one of the spider-crab rider demons with his hand mortar as he's in the process of getting speared.
    • Despite being a lowly seaman, Henry Brennan is very active throughout the entire voyage, racks up an impressive body count of humans and monsters alike, and is one of the last members to die.
    • Not only were they one of the few to make it off the doomed vessel alive, but Emily Jackson personally shot the violent Leonid Volkov with a rifle, avenging the Fourth Mate.
    • In an excellent instance of Royals Who Actually Do Something, It-Beng Sia stabs the steward of the treacherous Second Mate and is able to access the chest to repel the mermaids at the cost of his own life.
  • Big Bad: Second Mate Edward Nichols. He is the first murderer on the Obra Dinn and the head conspirator and mutineer. The chain of events that result from his actions lead to the deaths of almost every person on board the Obra Dinn, including himself.
  • Brick Joke: On the Obra Dinn, if you look at the sea, you can see a little speck of light coming from a very specific spot on the sea. It never plays a role in the investigation. In the true ending, while you discover the events of Chapter 8: The Bargain, when the sailors make the deal with the mermaids, they give them the shells the chest contained. Said shells emit an extremely bright light. And suddenly, you remember that little speck of light at large, and you realize what it is...
  • Continue Your Mission, Dammit!: In the early part of the game, the man in the rowboat will keep calling out to you until you retrieve the journal and the Memento Mortem. If you solve every possible fate on the ship, the game will tell you "there is nothing left to do on the Obra Dinn" so that you know it's time to leave.
  • Cool Sword: While there's no shortage of sabres to go around, one of the crew members is seen using a large scimitar. Finding it hanging off his (numbered!) bunk is an easy way to identify him.
  • Deliberately Monochrome: The entire game is only two colors and highly pixelated with shades of grey represented by a dither effect, meant to mimic the colors of old CRT computer monitors, which also neatly resembles the pen-and-ink stippling of the in-game era.
  • Dirty Coward: Second Mate Nichols. Once the mermaids attack during his attempted escape he immediately hides under the lifeboat seat while they proceed to kill the rest of his allies and captives.
  • Downer Ending: Downer beginning, due to the story being told in Anachronic Order. The tragedy that befalls the Obra Dinn and her crew is a sight to behold. Nearly the whole crew dies. Only four people make it off the ship, by desertion, and several innocents die either from unfortunate accidents or other horrific deaths. While some of the crew die heroically, many more expire either in painful or depressing ways. In the end, only four men remain - the Captain, his First Mate, and two more of their crew. The captain is forced to kill them all in self-defense, and he takes his own life soon after.
  • Driving Question: What exactly happened on the Obra Dinn to cause the entire crew to disappear/die without a trace?
    • A second question develops after exploring more of the ship's history: what happens in chapter 8 to stop the Kraken from attacking the ship?
  • Dying Moment of Awesome: Winston Smith, despite being spiked in the torso multiple times by the giant crab monster, blasts it point-blank with his hand mortar, killing it before he himself expires from his wounds.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: They have been for several years before the ship returned, but the fact still stands. Is played somewhat more straight after you complete the game, as Henry Evans eventually passes, being the one of the final passengers of the Obra Dinn to die.
  • Exact Words: The journal can only record who killed someone without any room for motive. This ultimately causes kills in self defense and accidents to go down in history as murders in the eyes of the insurance company. Captain Robert Witterel's many kills in self defense go down as murders, and his estate is posthumously fined severely for it. Charles Miner, who causes friendly fire, is labeled as a murderer as well.
  • Failed a Spot Check: In present time, the player can see a twinkling in the distance in the ocean that they can never reach. It's the shell, proving the sea monsters held their end of the bargain.
  • Featureless Protagonist: The nameless player character is never shown, and their voice is randomly picked to be either a man or woman's voice with each new playthrough. All a player can ever see of them is their gloved hands and coat sleeves.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Henry Evans, the ship surgeon, has a monkey with him frequently in the early sections of the story, in particular Chapter 2. Come Chapter 9, said monkey is nowhere to be found on the life boat. Eventually, it's revealed that Evans shot the monkey in order to obtain insight into the final two deaths on the Obra Dinn that he otherwise would have had no way of knowing by creating a body for the player to use the Memento Mortem on.
    • One of the deaths on the ship is a cow being slaughtered, which hints that the game will count animals as deaths if there is evidence for their demise. At the end of the game in the True Ending, Evans ships you his monkey's severed hand. There's your evidence.
    • The sketch "Justice at Sea" eventually gets shown as one of the deaths when someone is tried on the sea for murder. The culprit is hung from the mast and shot by several of the seaman in the back.
  • From Bad to Worse: Sums up perfectly the entire journey of the Obra Dinn. It started off with bitter cold and some sickness, and ended with attacks by a Giant Enemy Crab, a Giant Squid Sea Monster, and the crew going steadily insane until they were nearly wiped out.
  • Ghost Ship: The Obra Dinn sailed back to port with naught a person onboard, and the only noticeable remains of the crew are skeletons. The entirety of the game is trying to figure out how the ship met such a grisly fate.
  • Giant Squid: The Sea Monster the crew encounters in The Doom takes this form. It's a massive beast that easily dwarfs the Obra Dinn, with its tentacles able to snap the main rigging in half like it was a twig.
  • Gorn: Some of the deaths depicted in this game are downright horrific in their brutality. Special mention goes to Maba, who gets torn in half by the Giant Squid. Another excellent example is Olus Wiater, who gets the top part of skull blown clean off when he's shot with a pistol at contact range.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Several members of the crew are literally torn in half as they meet their ends. The Sea Monster they encounter in "The Doom" does this quite a bit, and one unfortunate fellow is blasted point-blank by cannon fire, shredding his body.
  • Hate Sink: Second Mate Nichols is devoid of redeeming qualities. He is notably the crew member with the dubious honor of highest amount of fines charged to his estate due to his manifold crimes committed on the Obra Dinn.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Third Mate Martin Perrott opens up the lazarette and gives the Artifact of Doom back to the last mermaid in exchange for sending the Obra Dinn back home, and receives several lethal wounds for his trouble, before he can make the creature understand. Although Perrott dies of his wounds, the mermaid holds up her end of the bargain... or she might have, if several attempts at mutiny hadn't got the rest of them killed.
    • Attempted by It-Beng Sia, the Formosan leader, who gives up his life to open the chest and activate the defenses that stun the attacking mermaids. Unfortunately, by that point nearly everyone else had been killed anyway.
  • Hero with Bad Publicity: The captain, dealt a tragic hand and forced to kill the last of his crew as mutineers in self-defense, goes down in history as a murderer, and his estate is fined posthumously for it.
  • Impossible Insurance: The final resulting insurance verdict in the Golden Ending. While it does reward the estates of victims who died valiantly in the line of duty and punishes the estates of criminals with heavy fines, some characters who killed in self defense or accidents are labeled and fined as murderers, such as the Captain. Charles Miner, who tried to kill a monster but hit a person instead, is also labeled as a murderer.
  • Interface Spoiler:
    • One of crew members in the ship's log is Henry Evans. Since Henry Evans was the one who sent the player character the journal and the Memento Mortem pocket watch in the first place, it can be reasonably assumed that Evans made it off of the ship alive.
    • Some of the possible methods of death are oddly specific as well. What does it mean to be "spiked", for example?
  • Jerk Ass: Second Mate Nichols is revealed to be the most abhorrent member of the crew by an order of magnitude. His Evil Plan seems to have been to hold the Formosan royalty and their magic chest for ransom, killing an innocent man and framing one of the Formosans for his murder, resulting in his conviction and execution. Nichols then kidnaps the royalty and sets out with some other people in on his conspiracy, and ends up getting them all killed as he cowers in his row boat. When Nichols tries to bargain with the Obra Dinn as they catch up, he is dealt a very deserved Karmic Death by the last remaining Formosan.
  • Kill It with Fire: One of the crab riders is killed by being set on fire, with a midshipman unfortunately being caught in the blaze.
  • Man on Fire: The fate of Midshipman Charles Hershtik, as well as any unfortunate soul who opens the magic treasure chest.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When the main character is asked how their companion is supposed to hoist the (far too heavy) suitcase they brought with them onto the ship, their answer is "Carefully."
  • Metaphorically True: You can get the hidden achievement "Captain Did It" by blaming the Captain for all deaths aboard the Obra Dinn, since this is, according to the achievement description, "Loosely true, in the eyes of Company and Crown".
  • Multinational Team: Downplayed. The Obra Dinn is an East India Company merchantman, so a lot of the crew are British, especially English, but like most commercial vessels they pick up crew wherever they happen to make port (typically places where the British Empire has colonial holdings) and need a few more hands. As a result, a significant portion of the crew is not British-born. This has a gameplay impact, as it can help to identify who-is-whom when piecing together the record of what happened.
  • Multiple Endings: The ending changes depending on how complete your records are of who died and how; as soon as all the flashbacks have been seen, regardless of how complete your records are, it's possible to leave the Obra Dinn on a rowboat. The people responsible for the inquiry will be dissatisfied with a lack of effort if you didn't identify enough crew members' fates. It's possible to do such a bad job that Henry Evans will die of disappointment. Granted, he's on his deathbed, but still!
  • Nothing Is Scarier: Focusing on the moments of death for the crew means that the player avoids seeing the (mostly) gruesome causes of death. However, that doesn't mean that you don't hear them play out. Sometimes they're quite mundane (such as the deaths caused by illness) but when you're listening to, say, a man being ripped apart by a giant squid monster...
  • Notice This: Remains that you can use the Memento Mortem on have moving specks of light floating around them. In an environment where everything else is still, this helps in locating particularly small pieces of a body.
  • One Steve Limit: Averted, as the crew list includes both two Johns and two Charles. Naturally, both pairs have one flashback each naming the person in conversation by first name only, requiring the player to deduce which of the pair is actually being referred to.
  • Ontological Mystery: To an extent. Finding out what happened to the ship's crew is important, but in doing so the player is slowly revealed to a second mystery, that being the purpose of the voyage and why it went so wrong.
  • Our Mermaids Are Different: The mermaids are treated as "terrible beasts" by the game. They have the ability to shoot long spikes, have claws instead of hands, and react like feral monsters when attacked.
  • Red Herring: Quite a few of the choices for possible fates don't actually happen to anyone. There also doesn't seem to be a single murder committed by a "foreign enemy" as such — every death is down to an accident, illness, the sea-dwellers, or members of the crew.
  • Retraux: Obra Dinn is a 3D, polygon-based game, but with a shader that renders everything such that every frame looks like a heavily dithered, entirely pixel-based image on a one- or two-color monitor from the early '80s. The game defaults to the off-black and off-white of the original Apple Macintosh, but can be tweaked to IBM, Zenith, LCD, and more, with stippled shades of grey and a slight glow effect from the brighter 'lit' pixels.
  • The Reveal: A nested series of escalating reveals as you go deeper and deeper into the ship. The captain put down a mutiny and then shot himself, the ship was attacked by a colossal squid and then invaded by giant crab-like horrors, the attacks occurred when Second Mate Nichols robbed the Formosans of their treasure and ended up summoning a host of mermaids, framing one of the royal guards for a murder he'd committed (that guard being the man killed by firing line in the 'Justice at Sea' sketch). The first two chapters are mild by comparison, containing a few deaths by sickness or accident. The final reveal, in 'Bargain', is that Third Mate Perrott gave his life to return the shell to the mermaids and free the sole survivor, and that the captain's steward, Filip, burned to death after getting his hands on the shell. Perhaps the greater reveal is that, supernatural though the plot might be, there was no eldritch madness at work. All the deaths that weren't due to monsters or illness occurred thanks to the usual combination of human cupidity, hatred, and paranoia, and even the monsters might have been avoided if not for the murderous Nichols and his party of thieves and kidnappers.
  • Reverse Whodunnit: All deaths that aren't accidents or illnesses have the killer very clearly performing the act, with the entire situation visible. The way that Show, Don't Tell is used gives players mental images of what is happening, with the sounds that the killer, victim, and witnesses make right up until the act itself is performed. Your goal as the player character is to deduce who died based completely on personal assumptions, and comparing other events with each other in order to piece together the full situation.
  • Same Surname Means Related: Two members of the crew have the surname 'Peters', which would probably go over the head of the player the first time they read the crew list - it only ever gets mentioned when one of the Peters' takes revenge for the death of his brother. However, the tricky part is identifying which Peters sibling is which.
  • Sea Monster: The Doom is all about an attack from a giant kraken, with tentacles that tear the ship apart, and personally crush several crew members as they try to fight it off.
  • Sherlock Scan: Invoked. Observant players can deduce the identity of just about everyone onboard by paying attention to not only the role they play on the ship, but also how they act in many situations.
    • Every single person has clues to their identity, with one such example being that the guys sleeping in cots in Chapter 2 have tags on the bottom of them that correspond with their number on the crew register.
      • Going a little further about analyzing the scene above, most of the sleeping crew keep their heads under their blankets and so names cannot be directly attached to their faces... but their shoes poke out, and players can match them up in other scenes by looking carefully at character's ankles.
    • Once you've figured out that some of the paintings group together the people who work under the same role and that the stewards all dress the same, it's possible to deduce several more key identities without their names even being said.
  • Shout-Out: In the "true ending" finale, a bookshelf contains a few items in displays:
  • Silent Protagonist: The protagonist utters a few words at the beginning of the game as they approach the Obra Dinn via rowboat, and that's all they'll ever say.
  • Spike Shooter: One of the possible methods of death is "spiked by a terrible beast." One of the nastier things about the crab monsters is their ability to launch volleys of bony spikes with enough force to pin a man to the wall, through the chest and out the other side of the wall, from across a room, multiple times.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Two groups of people try and get away with lifeboats. It ends very badly for the first group, since they try right as the kraken attacks the Obra Dinn, and all of them drown. The second group, who does it after the attack, is much more successful, and its four members are the only survivors of the tragedy.
  • The Stoic: The protagonist. Corpses everywhere, mysterious visions, monsters in said visions... They never seem even slightly fazed.
  • Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Second Mate Edward Nichols' personal greed sets off a chain reaction of events that ends up getting almost everyone killed.
  • Video Game Tutorial: Chapter 10 serves as this, introducing you to the mechanic of the 'memento mortem' watch -Chapter 10 includes some of the easier identities to discover as well, easing the player into the concept of using intuition and collected knowledge to solve the mystery.
  • Walking Spoiler: In perhaps an unprecedented case, everyone. All members of the crew start out unidentified, and each provides varying degrees of insight into the overall narrative of the Obra Dinn.
  • Wham Episode: Chapter 7: The Doom. It begins by interacting with a corpse in the captain's quarters, and features an attack by a giant squid. This chapter is also likely the first the player will see some of the more fantastical features of the story, exposing that the Memento Mortem is not the only supernatural element in play.
  • Wham Shot: Quite a few. Because of the structure of the game it's possible to encounter numerous different ones: such as finding the corpse of an enormous crab located in the cargo hold.
    • For people who only were used to the demo, the death of Abigail Hoscut-Witterel is this. Initially, her body was left as a teaser for things to come in the demo, with only vague ideas about her death available to hear. When you finally get to see her death in the full game, you probably did not expect it to be at the hands of an enormous sea creature.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The Memento Mortem treats the deaths of animals the same as it does for humans. In Chapter 2, a cow is slaughtered for its meat, which the player can see by using the pocket watch on its skull. This is also how Henry Evans shows the player the events of "The Bargain" by sending them his pet monkey's severed hand.
  • Your Head Asplode: It happens a few times. One of the crew is shot through the jaw into his skull, completely tearing his face off.