Why Obra Dinn Is One Of The Year's Best Games

Illustration for article titled Why Obra Dinn Is One Of The Year's Best Games

On this week’s Kotaku Splitscreen, we implore you to not miss Return of the Obra Dinn, a phenomenal game and contender for 2018's greatest.


First we dive into why Obra Dinn is so great, also taking some time to dissect Hitman 2, the Sega Genesis Classics collection, and other games we’re playing. Then it’s time for the news of the week (37:50) on Red Dead Online, Diablo 4, and The Game Awards rumors, along with some off-topic talk on Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star Is Born. (And don’t miss Kirk’s new podcast, STRONG SONGS.)

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Jason: You play as this insurance adjuster in 1807.

Kirk: Already a great premise. What could go wrong? You’re an insurance adjuster in the year 1807—I’m totally there for that.

Jason: This empty ship called the Obra Dinn re-appears on a dock and it’s your job to go on board and figure out what happened to it. You’re armed with these two items—one of them is a book that includes a manifest of everyone who was on the ship, and other notes that you can keep. And the other is a pocket watch—every time you find a dead body on the ship, you can use the watch to revisit the last moments of that person’s life.

As you go, you uncover what happened to this ship, and you have to use the book to figure out not only what happened to all 60 people, you have to figure out who each person is. You can walk around these memories, see what each person was doing at any given moment in time that you’re exploring, and you have to say, ‘Oh, this is the captain, and he died because of such and such.’ Or this person is the first mate, and he was killed because of this.

Chris Kohler compared it to a logic set, one of those puzzles where it’s like, ‘The third person is wearing red’ and ‘Julie is wearing a hat’—you know the type. It’s really one big logic puzzle because you’re using all this information and deduction and logic to figure out what happened to all these people. And it’s just incredibly well done. Every detail is just meticulously designed—I think it took the designer, Lucas Pope, who also made Papers, Please, four-and-a-half years to make. You and I were texting as we both finished this—holy shit no wonder it took him that long to make this game.

Kirk: It’s a meticulous creation. I am incredibly impressed by it. I can’t wait to either talk to him about it or hear him talk about it, because the creative process for making this must have been so rigorous and exhausting and just kind of amazing. Looking at the design of the game a little bit—it’s like a logic puzzle and yet it has this narrative twist that makes it unlike anything I’ve ever played. It has the logic puzzle rules in that there are three pieces of information you’re trying to deduce for every single person, and that’s it.


So you have that book, and the book is automatically filled in by your character whenever you find a new person’s fate. It’s filled in by showing you a picture of them, and there’s a master drawing of everyone in the crew, and it’s isolated that person. You know they died, and where in the timeline of the chronology of the ship they died, because the book is broken up into chapters, and each chapter has this evocative name like The Doom or Soldiers of the Sea. You become intimately familiar with each of these chapters, and each one shows a new fresh hell that this ship— This ship was extremely ill-fated.

Jason: Very bad luck to be on the Obra Dinn.

Kirk: These people were bad at staying alive, they were bad at being sailors, and then they were extremely unlucky. And yeah, we won’t get into spoilers, because a lot of the fun is discovering some of the stuff that happens. But what you need to actually figure out on your own is: Who is the person? How did they die? And, in some cases, what killed them? And that it: those three pieces of information. In the process of learning those three pieces of information, however, you learn so much more. You learn the entire story of all these people and how they came to be on this ship and the various relationships they had with one another, because you’ll overhear bits of dialogue when you do a flashback.


Basically you’ll go into a flashback, and the flashback might be of, say, one character you don’t know blowing the head off another character. This game also looks like an old Macintosh game—it has this cool visual style. So it’s really grisly and gnarly, it’s very violent and gross, but it’s not actually that gross because it’s very desaturated, it doesn’t look super realistic. So you’ll go back and see this, one guy shooting another guy. So first you think, ‘OK well who’s doing the shooting, do I know who that is yet, can I identify that?’ And then you’ll get the entry for that freeze frame, that part of the chapter, and you’ll say OK, this guy was shot, that’s how he died. And then maybe he was shot by whom? You don’t know yet. Oh actually he was shot by this guy, and you know his name, but maybe you don’t know the victim’s name yet.

Then when you’re in this freeze frame memory you can walk around it, time is frozen as this guy shoots him. You look in the background and there’s people over in this other room sticking their heads out, looking at this guy get shot, and then you realize that one guy is standing next to another guy, and he was actually carrying something for him. That guy who he’s carrying the thing for is the first mate, so that means this must be the first mate’s steward because the first mate’s steward is the guy who assists him.


That’s one example of the contextual deducing you do, and that to me is what makes the game so fascinating. It’s structured like one of those logic puzzles, where you have the things you know and the things you don’t know, and you fill in the gaps with some logic leaps, but it’s stretched over this narrative fabric where you’re walking around inside the world and learning about these people and their actual relationships just by observing them, not by getting you know, ‘I know this guy’s wearing a red shirt and I know this guy’s the first mate,’ but you’re saying, oh, I know this guy’s standing in the first mate’s cabin, and in this drawing this guy is standing over there with the other topmen so I know he’s probably a topman. So you’re doing a lot more contextual deduction, which is so much cooler to me anyways than the logic deduction you normally do in solving a logic puzzle.

Jason: It makes you feel like you’re a detective. And it trusts the player to figure this stuff out even when it’s tough, and it can be really tough.


For much more, listen to the entire episode. As always, you can subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts and Google Play to get every episode as it happens. Leave us a review if you like what you hear, and reach us at splitscreen@kotaku.com with any and all questions, requests, and suggestions.



I’m excited to see Kotaku’s (and specifically Splitscreen’s) coverage of the VGAs. I feel like indie games are just getting more and more cred but still lag behind the AAAs because of people’s (particularly in the US) obsession with bigger and better things and award shows are celebrations of that spectacle mindset. On Metacritic Return of the Obra Dinn, Into the Breach, and Dead Cells all have higher average review ratings than Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Spiderman, and have equal or higher ratings than Monster Hunter World but those 3 games are nominated for GOTY and the 3 Indies are not. Not saying it should only be be based on reviews, or that those games aren’t deserving of nominations, it just seems like a fair point to make. Celeste is nominated (and well deserves it) but I always want to push games away from the Hollywood model, where the only movies generally considered for major awards are the big ones and where nods are given to a few indie films here and there. Why not just...more nominations? I believe RDR2 will win (and deserves) most of the awards it will get, but I haven’t played it and Celeste was....pretty goddamn incredible and one of the most intelligent takes on mental illness and cognitive behavioral therapy one will see in media, let alone a video game. Will you be discussing where indies fall now as game tech kinda maxes out with games like RDR2 and indies are only getting more popular and access to technology making them more and more advanced? Like, shouldn’t Hollow Knight have gotten some nominations last year? Also….don’t video games need more categories? Why is it modeled so much after the TV and film awards? Where’s best game mechanic, best UI, bet map system, stuff that is very video game-centric and can be such a phenomenal part of games? Not to mention more genres, more direct awards for game devs (best environment design, best boss battle etc.) would love to hear your thoughts on all that (and more, as you know more than me!)

Also I desperately want to play Return of the Obra Dinn - it’s everything I want in a game, I can just tell, but the Switch has taken over my life and I barely touch my PC out of sheer comfort and ease of play with the Switch. Any news on a release date for an Obra Dinn port….? :D

Also to Kirk - you should check out the Genesis collection. NES games can definitely hold up and be fun, but the Genesis and SNES era are when video games really started to show what they could do. Many games from that era are still actively playable favorites of mine compared to games today. Shining Force, Phantasy Star, Streets of Rage, Ecco the Dolphin (it’s sadly missing from these Sega collections, it’s a complete masterpiece with incredible unique game design and music). Specifically you gotta check out Streets of Rage 2 - not only is it one of the most fun beat’em ups ever, I feel like you’d appreciate the music, which is still one of the best game soundtracks of all time in my opinion. Golden Axe also has some really great music too. Basically I’m saying it’s worth it to you personally to check out some of the games because of your musical interests. There’s some nasty tracks in there!

Also just wanna say I’ve been trying to find other gaming podcasts and…..I just haven’t found anything that compares to Splitscreen. You all really combine critical thinking, progressive politics, quality journalism, serious discussion, appreciation of games as art, and a pure love of games that just isn’t matched in anything else I’ve heard. A lotta podcasts have pieces of those but you combine them all to make what is definitely the best gaming podcast I’ve listened to. I’ve tried several other of the bigger name ones and they’ve all been kinda ok kinda mediocre and not as multi-faceted as Splitscreen.