I was contemplating whether I should talk about ROTOD before next week’s end of the year article; I have not finished ROTOD yet, and there’s a chance I won’t finish it before that article, yet it is one of my favorite games of the year. So, I wrote an article for GRIS instead and was gonna add a small paragraph for ROTOD in the end as a prelude to the longer conversation for next week; it turned into an article of its own and I decided to add it as a bonus for this week. Both are more raw and unprocessed as a result, so apologies for that and I’ll hopefully make it up next week!
Return of the Obra Dinn is unique, a masterpiece, and one of the best detective games ever made; I’ve been playing ROTOD for a couple of weeks now and have not finished it yet or been able to stop thinking about it. I love a game that makes me take out a piece of paper and write down clues, locations, details, and names like a TV detective. ROTOD makes some exceptional “suggestions” to making a detective game interactive, challenging, and as satisfying as possible, without leaving players on their own. As the insurance agent sent to the unexpectedly returned Obra Dinn, the player is tasked with figuring out what happened to the crew, using your magical compass to look at characters’ dying moments or memories from important events; you’ll have to correctly deduce who each crew member is, what happened to them (if they are murdered, who killed them), and in the process you’ll find out the story of the ship and why the events happened in the first place. ROTOD uses several checks to see if you have the correct answers; have you figured out the name, cause of death, and the perpetrator of the crime? Have you figured who left the ship alive, and where they are? The game tells you that when you’ve had three correct answers it will let you know, so you’re never quite sure if you are correct or not, and it will only tell you if the full statement is made (name only does not count as an answer). This removes the immediate satisfaction of deducing something correctly, but essentially triples that every time you get something correct, as well as the thirst and determination detective game elicit when we think we have something correct, but we overlooked a key detail.
ROTOD is not uninviting though; on the contrary, it has some of the most useful “nudge” mechanics I’ve seen thus far, like faces remaining blurred when you don’t have enough information, but becoming focused when there is enough. Furthermore, the game lets you know the difficulty of finding the information for each passenger, thus allowing the player to move on when they hit a “dead end”. It is also a very smart game, designed for the people who want a “proper” detective game; crewmembers are not randomly placed on the ship, and they do not wear varying uniforms to keep things visually interesting; you can deduce the name/fate of the member from being observant in various ways. For example, the first member you can figure out is pretty easy and is designed as a tutorial to the mechanics (btw, this is your spoiler warning for the first member); you can figure out the captain by his uniform and by the fact that he is the person in this scene dressed as a captain (and because “captain” is called out in the dialogue, we can safely assume that the captain is present). But I figured out who the captain is by focusing on the fact that the people calling him out are asking him to “come out” suggesting he is behind a door, so when the scene presented me someone opening the door, I immediately deduced that he is the captain. That’s just a small, and pretty easy example of how ROTOD feels like magic or like a breath of fresh air; my only complain about it is that it relies on the player to “enjoy” it’s very particular art style and take in all the details that come from that art style, which I did not and I had to search for help in some occasions to nudge myself towards the correct solution.
ROTOD may not be a “perfect” game and I don’t love all aspects of it, but it is such a challenging and unique experience that—similarly to Pope’s last game Papers Please—tries to suggest new avenues on tackling difficult design problems; “how do you make the subtle evil bureaucracy breeds into people through an interactive medium?”; “how to make a detective game that allows the player to truly deduce the solutions on their own, while still being an interactive, gameified experience?”. These are the questions Lucas Pope attempts to answer through his games, and in return we have one of the most talented person in the industry providing us with unique and engrossing answers in the form of engaging and excellent games; hopefully he will keep making games and will keep attempting to answer the difficult questions with as much accuracy and efficiency as he has shown until now.