Return of the Obra Dinn is a unique detective game. In this game, the player takes the role of an investigator who was asked by the East India company to board the once disappeared ship to find out what actually happened to all missing crew members. With the help of a magic pocket watch, the death scene can be reproduced when the death body of a crew has been found, and the purpose of the player is to match all 60 crew members with their names and to find out the cause of their death.

Aside from the unique art style and expressive soundtrack, the most interesting part of the game is its non-linear narrative mode and how it attracts players to figure out the fate of each crew member. The whole story is broken into 8 chapters, and each chapter contains several plots in the form of a static scene with a very short dialog, where players can explore and find clues. There are huge numbers of clues scattered in the game in many different forms, like the nationality and identity information, the relationships shown in the sketches of life aboard or the environment details, and all the fates of 60 crew members can be determined in any order. This left the game designer a great challenge as to how to control the structure of the game to avoid the players losing in the massive information and at the same time gives the player enough space to beat the game in their own way.

In my viewpoint, the author drives the game with two relatively independent mechanics, and he sacrifices the richness of the story to maintain the mechanics working. The most obvious performance is using the static scene instead of dynamic story clips. In Tacoma, the story was told non-linearly in a dynamic way under a special setting of Augmented Reality, while the cost is that only a few simple interactions are left in the game, which makes it not fun enough for most players. The conflict between improving the playability of the game and telling the story smoothly has always existed. Return of the Obra Dinn does not totally avoid this problem, but it finds a balance to combine gameplay and narration more harmoniously.

For narrative, this game uses a different way to push the story. Some plots are connected by person, the same crew appears in different scenes, instead of simply concatenated by time and space. New dead body means a new scene, and a new scene can unlock the space limitation, which means more dead bodies could be found. This loop allows the player to constantly unfold the story. This mechanic is easily reminiscent of Her story, one of the masterpieces of the non-linear narrative game, however, there is still a clear difference between them. In her story, the “key words”, which provides players more story content, are also the answers of the puzzles, which means players would be stuck if they fail to find more valuable “words” from previous video clips. While in Return of the Obra Dinn, the player can almost see the whole story without finding out a single crew’s fate, because the puzzle solving part makes no influence on the mechanic that pushes the story. This strategy ensures that the player can have a smoother experience in the game without reducing difficulty, giving extra tips or compromising in any other aspect.

Then we turn to the gameplay part, which really makes this game standout. For me, the most genius design in this game is how this special “puzzle solving” system works. In most of the detective games, the process of solving the case can be divided into 3 steps: acquiring a suspect; finding evidence for conjecture; verifying the guess. These 3 steps still exist in this game. The difference is that all the cases are put forward in the very beginning of the game, what players need to do first is deciding which case should be solved first. This process adds a new step in front of the basic steps, and can be seen as a relatively independent gameplay, which is unique and challenging. The author adds two restrictions to make it work. One is eliminating cases that are temporarily unsolvable and showing the degree of difficulty for each solvable case. The other is verifying all the cases together right after every player’s guess, but tells players the result only when three guesses were correct. These rules guarantee that players can solve cases in a free order and don’t get too frustrated. On the basis of these new mechanics, players can finish all the steps left for each case just like other detective games.

Actually, there are a great number of design details in the game to help players interact with the game more conveniently and effectively, but that is another topic.