Return of the Obra Dinn (2018) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)

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Among the many pleasures and surprises in Return of the Obra Dinn lay an embrace of one truism working insurance claims.  When someone puts in a claim they may be using their insurance on the worst day of their life.  Between the rotted corpses, potential mutiny, monster attacks, and sickness rampant on the Obra Dinn it's unlikely you'd find a worse day in the lives of its passengers or crew. But the insurance adjuster must go on and work backwards to figure out what happened so the claims may be paid.

That truism embraced - I'm head over heels enamored with Lucas Pope's Return of the Obra Dinn as it seems custom-built to appeal to each of my loves and past work as an insurance adjuster (Fire claims for four years among other insurance duties). What Pope nails is the process of working claims.  The damage has already been done and it's up to you, playing the adjuster, to piece together the events that brought the Obra Dinn to its end.It would be nice to assume everyone is acting in good faith and telling the truth but humans are tricky with their unreliable memories or individual agendas. Pope's visual approach works in-tune with this, sketching the Obra Dinn in skeletal wires and few colors to make the past as difficult to look at as the present. The big memories, such as the bestial attack that encompasses one eventful chapter, show the gigantic beasts in precise detail just as the humans littering the ship fight for their lives. It's the quieter moments when those same humans work through their agendas that faces become blurrier, their actions less clear, and the difficult work of figuring out who they are begins to take shape.

The work comes through a documentation system that is both incredibly intuitive and allows for an initially overwhelming amount of freedom. You're given a full list of who was on the Obra Dinn, some sketches of those people, and a few hundred blank pages to fill in. Oh, and a magic pocket watch that allows you to experience the precise moment of death for one of the ship dwellers frozen in macabre posterity. That last mechanic seems like it would have been useful when I worked claims but that's where the difficult task of figuring out just what's going on comes in.

Pope eases in with a classic naval scenario where just a bit of thinking about who is speaking, who dies, and where will likely lead you to the insurance-approved conclusion. For the later (or earlier, depending on your perspective) chapters his skeletal visuals hide important details in plain sight. Hiding because you might not know they're crucial, or they might take careful study of the surrounding area, or you might need to Google nautical terms to familiarize yourself with ship work, or translate dialogue to determine the origin based on how its written, or on and on and on and on.This is what makes Return of the Obra Dinn so absorbing. There's no end to the way you can deduce what happened. I think in rectangles and emotions, so chapters where motivations for murder become clear matched mentally with sketches of the involved persons as I studied faces and listened to voices as my primary way of putting the mystery together. Watching others play online has been equally fascinating with some taking a hard logical approach by constantly referring to the list of people on the ship, while someone else might sketch out relationship trees to guess who would have authority in what situation and what they might be doing. This is why Pope overwhelms with detail as he seems to have anticipated that each player will learn and absorb information about the Obra Dinn differently with no "correct" approach to getting through the game.

Joining the deduction is an amusingly insistent soundtrack. It might annoy some players, but the playful rhythm and strings generated excellent, "Ah hah!" feelings of success when I'd piece together a few fates. Pope's decision to permanently inscribe accurate deductions in groups of three works both as a mechanism against random guessing while providing assurance you're on the right path. It also keeps focus on the relationships between everyone as you can only get that inscription by considering how each section of the ship would live and work as a unit.When you're ready to wash your hands of the investigation and call it quits you get to the lasting horror of Return of the Obra Dinn. All the death, betrayal, innocence destroyed (those poor midshipmen), and nightmares of the few survivors comes up on the screen in tidy numeric settlements. This is the sum of human existence with all our fears and dreams, a note in a soon-to-be-forgotten journal and a handful of pounds. There's scant room for humanity working in insurance, which is something I struggled with and eventually had to leave the industry because of, and I think specifically of how the insurance adjuster considers the Captain at the end. It's not in terms of the love he lost or the crew he led into ruin, but the sacrificed cargo that could have turned a profit so his memory must be punished in death.

Return of the Obra Dinn considers the dehumanizing affect of the insurance industry on how we look at life while scratching a deductive itch thoroughly. It's a fascinating, absorbing, and ultimately compelling commentary that outdoes Pope's previous Papers, Please in every measure and one of 2018's best artistic experiences.

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Posted by Andrew

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