Here’s a mystery: How do you build a well-paced suspense story in a medium where you are the investigator? It’s a lot trickier than you might think.
The classic investigative geniuses — Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown — were all great characters, but they weren’t just great characters. They all served functional purposes in their original stories and kept their mysteries moving.
Trying to keep track of subtle details and stay ahead of the characters is fun; it’s a lot of what people come to mystery stories for, but if something is a real stumper the hero is always there to pick up the slack and move things along.
Games as a medium have always had a hard time replicating the feel of a good mystery, because when you are the investigator, the world and mechanics have to provide all the functional support. Mystery games aren’t a popular genre to begin with, so there’s little precedence for how to do this in a balanced way.
If there was ever a man to solve the problem, it was Lucas Pope. His only other retail release until now was “Papers, Please” — a paper-work simulator that shouldn’t work on any level, but which manages to be enjoyable as heck and make some of the most damning political statements about totalitarianism and resistance that exist in any medium. With only a single title under his belt, Pope had already established himself as a well-known gaming auteur.
There aren’t a lot of those.
He announced “Return of the Obra Dinn” in 2014. Since I was following it in its alpha stages, I was overjoyed when the game’s release announcement appeared out of the blue a few weeks ago.
I can say it lives up to expectations: It’s incredibly compelling, it has a unique visual style, it’s experimental and it nails just about every mechanic it uses in exploring how to convey a mystery. Despite everything I’m about to say regarding this game, it’s a real gem and everyone with 20 bucks and a computer should be looking up how to give Pope their money right now.
Here’s the problem. “Return of the Obra Dinn” nearly solves the issue of an interactive mystery story. It’s kind of frustrating in that respect — all of the right pieces are here to make a mystery game masterpiece, but they’re just a little out of alignment.
Pacing is the main issue. At the beginning of the game you are tasked with solving the fates of the 60 men and women who were, at one point, aboard this now abandoned and pristine ship. Some were shot, some died accidentally, some were killed by monsters, a scant few even escaped the ship alive and you have to figure out who everyone is and what happened to them with minimal information.
Well, with just enough information you can piece it together, given a lot of exploration and attention to detail. The trouble is you’re not allowed to give the game that close of attention until you’re nearly at its end. The game tells its story in reverse through vignettes. You find a corpse, examine it and you get a few seconds of imageless audio — the last things the deceased heard — followed by an explorable 3D space depicting the exact moment of the person’s death. You can see who was around them when they died, what was happening in some nearby rooms and, usually, what killed them. But the first time you do this, you only get about a minute to do so before the game whisks you off to the next vignette. It’s just enough time to get a grasp on the situation and do a quick survey of some faces, but not enough to notice that guy in the corner being dragged off into the sea. Real investigative work, without a timer, can only begin once you’ve completed a set of vignettes (a narrative “chapter”).
On one hand, I can understand why this choice was made. Often you won’t have the information needed to solve part of a chapter until you’ve seen all of it. And for a lot of the crew, you won’t have the information you need until you’ve seen all the chapters. Keeping things moving along isn’t a bad idea — it just could’ve been done better. Why aren’t we allowed to take notes on the vignette we’re in while we are first in it? Why is there such a long transition, where we have to return to the present-day ship, between every vignette? And why does the main character move so slowly?
What this game really needs is some kind of fast travel system. I know that sounds silly for a game taking place in a single location, but this title needs it more than most open world games. When you’re tracing the day of an individual crew member across the death memories of five other crew members on four different levels of the ship, it would be immensely helpful to be able to jump between the different memories, rather than have to slip out into the present-day and lurch over to the next clues on the other side of the map.
I have other little gripes, all of which basically amount to, “Why do I sometimes have to physically write things down instead of noting them in the notes system?” But the little gripes are unimportant: This game is a beast. If you’re willing to tolerate a bit of a slow burn in terms of how much investigating you’ll get done, it’s perfect for all fans of mysteries or puzzle games in general.
Final Grade: A
Marty Forbeck is a video games columnist for the Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.