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Retro-Relative: Obra Dinn and Mystery Games

Return of the Obra Dinn title image

 Obra Dinn and the Mystery Within 

Ever since we have climbed out of our slime mold, humans have loved stories. Thus, it is no surprise that many genres of games focus on spinning a good yarn. Indeed, games have made an art out of blending interaction with a good read. While playing Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope, I was reminded of another niche of gaming I really love. When it comes to winding a narrative, one genre stands out: the who-done-it or mystery.

Today, like my article on rhythm games, I am going to look back on some of my favorite mystery games. First, I will muse on what makes mystery games stand out. After that, I’ll see how Obra Dinn stands up. I will make a retrospective that is relative to how games are now. A retro-relative, if you will.

Let’s start.

Just the Facts, Ma’am (Information Collection)

Do Your Research

Layton Brothers Mystery Room Time for Some Expert Sleuthing
Do your research!
Layton Brothers: Mystery Room

In truth, very few genres of games really require paying attention to the plot in order to progress in it. It is often too easy to completely miss the plot and complete a game. So much so that YouTubers fall into this trap constantly (to the audience’s collective cringe). In contrast, the story is the gameplay in a mystery. To be more precise, a good who-done-it is all about remembering plot details and gathering information. You use evidence, witnesses’ accounts, and the crime scene to eliminate falsehoods and find the truth. If you don’t pay attention, you are not getting very far. 

One of the most obvious examples of this plot dependency is Layton Brothers: Mystery Room. In Layton Brothers, most of the game involves you searching around crime scenes for bits of evidence. In order to catch the killer, you need to find contradictions between evidence, profiles, and witness accounts. Thus, to be able to pull the answer via the process of elimination, you will need to spot lots of tiny, tiny details. This involves a lot of time revisiting files, quotes, and nuggets of knowledge. 

The Dividing Line

Day of the Tentacle (Lucasarts)

We need to address an elephant in the room. Granted, some may argue that fine details are a must in a narrative-based game. For example, point-and-clicks like Day of the Tentacle are notorious for spouting clues via notes and character dialogue. Yet, Layton Brothers and other mystery games require a lot more time getting that information and digesting it. 

Although I am a huge fan of Professor Layton, the Layton Brothers game is special in my heart in how it engages information. Though the storylines of Professor Layton games follow a crime, it is not the center of it. The gameplay works more like a Wario Ware and the puzzles can be taken out of context with little consequences. 

Similarly to my soapbox definition of rhythm games, the gameplay in a mystery should be structured around the mystery. Therefore, at the end of the day, you should be spending most of your time with that mystery. Which brings me to my next point…

I Object (The Characters)

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Objection
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Objection!

Characters are essential in any good story. This is especially true for mystery games because you spend A LOT of time with them. Most mystery games involve questioning individuals about events, relationships, and locations. If you don’t spend time questioning people themselves, they’ll be in your evidence files. An easy way to think about this is through Clue/Cluedo. You need to know who the characters are and what they have in their hand to push forward. Thus, it becomes important that the characters are engaging and worth the investment. In fact, the best part of the gameplay should be your interaction with characters.

A perfect yet over-the-top example of this is principle is the Phoenix Wright series. Though there is crime scene snooping, the true charm of the Phoenix Wright games is their insane cast. There are points at which the game requires you to listen to piles of testimonies and accounts just to rip apart a single out-of-place word. This would be extremely tedious if the characters themselves were not hilarious and surprisingly deep. Similarly, and probably more ridiculous, is the Danganronpa series. Your success in finding the murderer in each chapter depends not only on the clues but also your knowledge of the characters and whatever time you have spent with them. 

When You Have Eliminated the Possible (Puzzles and Alternate Routes)

I’ll Take the High Road…

Return of the Obra Dinn memory 1
Return of the Obra Dinn – a memory

As we become more efficient with data storage, gamers expect more from their games. Therefore, game devs have had to face the challenge of extended playtime while keeping that playtime immersive. One of the most prominent ways of doing this is by giving the player choices. Through choice, a simple concept can suddenly become a complex one.

When I first thought about this feature in mystery games, I thought it was a pretty new addition. After all, games like Phoenix Wright have linear plots and one true answer. However, in an odd restrictive way, choice was always an important part of these games. Both Phoenix Wright and Layton Brothers give you the option to look through things at your leisure. You can read files, talk to witnesses, or explore crimes scenes in any order. Sure, there is only one answer, but there are many leaps of logic you can take to get there.

Finding information in these games is like letters to a hangman game. There is only one sentence, but your skill and attention can determine how quick and good at it you can be.  What more recent games do is simply take advantage of this and up the difficulty by providing more choice in infinite ways.

Oh! The Endless Possibilities…

Zero Escape Virtue's Last Reward
Zero Escape: Virtue’s Last Reward

The Zero Escape series’ challenge relies heavily on the concept of choice. The game focuses on several people stuck on a murder boat a la Saw. What rooms you enter determines what puzzles you solve and who you solve them with. Who you solve puzzles with determines who you talk to and what data you get from the puzzles. Both things determine what information you cover, how much of the mystery is solved and, of course, your ending. Considering that there are nine hours, nine persons and nine doors, there are a lot of options to choose from. Furthermore, trying to piece together the information and character relationships through each playthrough is essential to the plot. These games will have you up at night wondering what tiny morsel you missed the 5th time through. This is overkill, but a testament to the power of choice.  

Shaken, Not Stirred…

The Red Strings Club - asking the weird questions (cropped)
The Red Strings Club – asking the weird questions

Another game that really plays with possibilities is The Red Strings Club. In this game, the main character owns a bar. The gameplay involves mixing the right drink for guests, so you can ask them certain questions. If you have asked the right questions, you will get the answers you want. The game gives you multiple people, routes of inquiry, AND attitudes to do this. You can choose to be careful, seductive, heavy-handed or a combination during questioning. It quickly becomes difficult to keep track and paranoia would set in hard if there wasn’t a story map. 

In conclusion, the power of choice is amazing when paired with a good mystery because it quickly teaches you to make a strategy and, most importantly, pay attention. 

Return of the Obra Dinn

The Journey 

Lost at Sea poster (Return of the Obra Dinn) (cropped)
Return of the Obra Dinn – Lost at Sea notice

This game. Where do I start with the game? I can safely say this game is turning out to be one of my favorites of 2018. Unless something drastic happens, it may be my fav for 2019 as well. We have 12 months, so we’ll see.

The plot of this game involves the return of a ship, the Obra Dinn, which had been missing for some time. As the main character, you are charged with figuring out what happened on the ship and the final fate of each individual crew member. I could go on about the retro 1-bit visuals (which are lovely) and the music (which is eerie), but that is not what we are here for. We are here for the mystery.   

The Search

Return of the Obra Dinn - clues
Return of the Obra Dinn – clues

Obra Dinn has expanded on all the previous techniques of mystery games in fascinating ways. The gameplay is basically huge bouts of information-collecting and crime scene exploration. Much like Phoenix Wright or Layton Brothers, it pays to explore each area extensively and revisit to find clues missed or lost.

Furthermore, though this game has a very serious tone compared to the other games, characters are very important in Obra Dinn. Each crewmate has some drama behind them and you are required to invest in that drama to match up their identities. You jump from memory to memory, piecing together what happened to a crew member, finding their identity and relationships, then using that info to build info on their crewmates. These memories act as pseudo-witness accounts and you are tasked with figuring out how they match up.

The Lonely Road

Obra Dinn ship diagram
Obra Dinn – ship diagram with timeline

Last but not least, all of your information-snooping and memory-grabbing is subject to choice. You can choose when to make your claims on crewmates’ identities and fates. Because there is a slew of information to take in and multiple endings, there are many routes and techniques you can take in order to get your answers. The game actually takes advantage of this, making the overbearing amounts of data and possibilities a means of challenge and tripping the player up.

All in all, Return of The Obra Dinn is an amazing game. I know that most of the favorites here are pretty goofy, so this is a perfect stepping stone for someone looking for a more serious take on a who-done-it. The game itself is not super long, which means you can spend the time replaying and finding new info without wasting too much of your life.

Your Turn

Do you guys have any favorite mystery games? What do you think of Return of the Obra Dinn? Let us know in the comments!


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About the author

Camille McIntyre

By day, Camille is an animal caretaker at a museum. By night, she is a prolific explorer of the fantastical. Whether it is built with ink, pixels, or hyperbole, she visits new worlds with feverish persistence and a keen eye for detail. If needed, Camille can be found in a place far, far away on a dark and stormy night, asking all the wrong questions as she finishes her journey there and back again.

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