Being a crime solving detective is a fantasy often romanticized in media. It’s been my experience that video games aren’t always great at capturing the essence of what makes deductive fiction so alluring, that was until I played Return of the Obra Dinn. Where other detective games will lead players to a case’s solution, Obra Dinn instead asks them to put their deductive skills to work solving its many mysteries. Here I’d like to highlight how Obra Dinn accomplishes this.
It should go without saying, but there will be spoilers ahead. I’m going to meticulously walk through how to pick out clues and identify one of the crew members. This won’t ruin the game, but if you’re already sold on Return of the Obra Dinn then stop reading this, buy it, play it, and then come back to read this.
For those who don’t already know, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game where you investigate the fate of the 60 person crew of a ship named the Obra Dinn. This is done using a magic pocket watch that lets you observe the moment someone died. You’ll hear a brief sound clip, and then see a static scene of someone, or something dying. It is your job to determine who that person is, and how they died. How they died is often straight forward, but determining the identity of everyone on the ship is where Obra Dinn challenges your detective skills.
To look at how Obra Dinn differs from other detective games, we need to first understand what elements make up an investigation. Generally speaking, an investigation can be broken down into the following four steps: evidence collection, following leads, making connections, and asserting deductions. Here is an executive summary for what I mean by each listed element:
- Evidence Collection: finding clues and information related to the current case
- Following Leads: looking into a piece of evidence that prompted further examination
- Making Connections: determining how pieces of evidence associate with one another
- Asserting Deductions: taking all of the information gathered to make a final declaration on what transpired
Obra Dinn shares all of these elements with other detective games, but a difference permeates through the entirety of the experience: player control. Obra Dinn never takes players by the hand and leads them through a case. Instead, players are responsible for determining what is evidence, following up on any leads they discover, making connections, and arriving at a final deduction.
To illustrate this I’m going to walk through identifying one of the 60 crew members. Consider this your final spoiler warning.
For this scene the body we’re investigating is that of a beef cow which is being killed as food for the crew. Despite this, there is crucial information to be gained here.
Firstly, the transcript of audio that plays when you start the scene:
A single piece of information jumps out here: one of the men is identified as Charlie. We have our first piece of evidence: someone in the scene is named Charlie. It’s also worth noting that a person is violently vomiting during the playback of the audio, hence why Charlie is being asked if he’s alright. It’s not captured in the transcript, but this seems like a suitable lead to follow-up on.
Once the scene loads we see a group of four men, three of which are huddled around a cow while a fourth is off to the side. The orientation of the fourth man suggests he might be Charlie, having run off to vomit away from the other men. Upon closer inspection we see the fourth man is lurched over, and has pools of liquid in front of him, further reinforcing the association between both pieces of audio evidence.
Having found the connection between the audio playback, and the presented scene we can safely assume this vomiting man’s given name is Charlie, however we don’t know his surname.
One of the tools provided at the beginning of the game is a crew list which has every crew member’s name and position on it. Using this we can identify Charlie’s surname. Unfortunately, we don’t find any Charlies, but we do find two people with the name Charles. Charlie is to Charles what Rob is to Robert, so that isn’t much of a conundrum. However, figuring out which Charles is the man we just saw may prove more tricky.
Along with the crew list, there are also two sketches provided, which depict everyone on the ship. Inspecting anyone on the ship will show their corresponding portrait within the sketches. Interestingly, two of the other three men appear next to Charlie within the drawing. They also seem to be wearing nearly identical uniforms. If these three are dressed the same then we can assume they have the same position on the ship. Spotting that connection we can again cross-reference the crew list to see if this new clue sheds some light on the situation.
We can see that Charles Miner, the bosun’s mate, is a position only held by a single person on the ship. However, Charles Hershtik is one of three midshipman. It stands to reason that our Charlie is likely Charles Hershtik given his uniform matched two other crew members, likely the other midshipmen.
Alright, deduction time.
We’ve observed audio evidence where someone is vomiting and is addressed by name: Charlie. The scene following shows a man lurched over a puddles of liquid meaning this is likely Charlie. We then observed that there are two potential candidates for who this might be: Charles Miner, or Charles Hershtik. Given that Charlie is wearing an identical uniform to two other men, it is fair to assume that he is Charles Hershtik one of the three midshipman, rather than the sole bosum’s mate Charles Miner.
This deduction will be confirmed much later when you observe the scene Charlie dies in, but I think it does a good job of illustrating how Obra Dinn lets the player control each of the four steps to solving an investigation. None of the evidence, leads, or connections are explicitly pointed out by the game. Instead, the player has to connect all the dots and eventually arrive at a conclusion. It’s for this reason that Return of the Obra Dinn is one of the best detective games I’ve ever played. If you haven’t already played it, and what I’ve described here piqued your interest I highly recommend checking it out.