No time for hand-holding when you have a job to do
Let’s talk about tutorials for a second.
I started noticing tutorials about halfway through the N64’s lifetime. The title of what game burst the bubble is lost underneath two decades of memories (probably a perfectly decent but not great platformer), but it was akin to that feeling when you first realized movies could be bad.
I knew how to press the jump button, and I knew what those spiky enemies meant. And I sure as shit knew how to collect all the slowly spinning dross littered about each level. But here was this game, explaining everything in excruciating detail via a signboard or anthropomorphic, bespectacled animal.
Game tutorials serve a necessary function that’s hard to neatly fold into the rest of the experience. Give players too much benefit and you risk miscommunicating control schemes and major mechanics. Hold their hands too much and you make them feel like a teenager having their faced cleaned in the middle of the mall.
All this is to say when a game like Return of the Obra Dinn shows up, it faces a daunting task right out of the gate. The presentation is unique, from its pointillism-inspired art to dialogue delivered without any visual accompaniment. The action certainly doesn’t explode from the title sequence; this is a game of decisions, not reactions.
And yet, the opening minutes of Obra Dinn are masterfully done, onboarding players to the tone, mechanics and narrative hook of the game all in one sequence that plays out like a choreographed dance.
[Heavy spoilers beyond this point for Act X: The End and the beginning of Act VII: The Doom]
The game opens on a poster detailing the assumed fate of the Obra Dinn and its recent auspicious reappearance. Next is a letter addressed to you, the player. You’re an insurance claims adjuster for the “Honorable” East India Company. The style and font is period-appropriate, and might remind you of a replica promoting one of Shakespeare’s plays your high school drama teacher had tacked to the wall.
Then, there is a black screen and the sound of water lapping against the side of your small boat. A sailor is ferrying you to the Obra Dinn, his gruff voice letting you know nobody wants to get close to the vessel. You’ll soon find out all dialogue is conveyed this way.
Once you’re safely tied to the Obra Dinn, you’re allowed to go aboard and walk the deck for the first time. It softly sways in the water, barely noticeable unless you stand still and focus. A steady wind riffles through what remains of the sails and rigging. What strikes you is just how empty the ship is. Lifeless. You might feel that tingling sensation somewhere along your neck that occurs when a deeper part of your mind recognizes something wrong but can’t pass along the message.
Then, you find a body.
It’s been dead for a while; bones draped in old cloth plot out where a full person once lay. It’s almost a relief because it means you aren’t exactly alone up here. You wander a bit more before your companion calls you back to the rowboat. Your suitcase of gear is far too heavy to bring up the ladder, he says. Come open it here, he says.
Inside you find two items. One is a journal, a nondescript book without any marking on the cover or spine. The inside is a different story. A title and preface from one Henry Evans seems to imply that someone has knowledge of what happened on and to the Obra Dinn and its crew. The book also contains maps, deck plans, sketches, a crew manifest, and pages beyond pages of blank whiteness. Huh.
Shutting that, you pull out the second item. It’s a pocket watch with a stylized skull set in the center. As you examine it the screen cuts to black.
At this point the game has allowed you time to acquaint yourself with the physical space of the ship and a captivating art style that might throw some out of their more realistically rendered comfort zone. It let you organically discover the body but held back your means of interacting with it. Until now, of course.
You ascend the ladder and return to the body. Your character extends her hand, the Memento Mortem resting in her palm. It flips open, and a spiraling black engulfs the screen as a musical sting plays (by the way, this game has THE BEST musical stings).
There are voices, rough and aggressive. Something is happening but you can’t be sure what. A gunshot.
The scene that smashes back to you is one frozen in time. The music — a lumbering collecting of low strings that evokes all your memories of sailors and pirates — swells, and you face a man with a gun in his extended hand. Particles form the trajectory of a fired bullet, and as you turn you see the intended target. His blood fountains behind him, and in this still frame it could almost be comical.
You are swimming in details and trying to take it all in when that swirling blackness returns. Your book flips open to Act X: The End, and details are penciled in. The game smartly waited until just now to introduce you to the puzzle box of Return of the Obra Dinn, after you’ve been first intrigued by the space and then thrown headlong into a supernaturally revealed murder mystery. Now, the game says, do your job.
“Solving” each death requires providing three pieces of information: who died, who did it, and with what. It’s immediately familiar to anyone who ever played Clue, but this game is much more coy with how it reveals information. There is some light prompting from the game as to how you can try at answers, but it warns you that brute forcing would be both boring and unproductive. I agree.
Luckily, the dialogue and details of this first scene let you get tantalizingly close to solving all three of those parts. It’s just the first part of a very clever bait and switch.
You return to that grisly, frozen scene and are given free reign to explore. You notice for the first time a fourth figure making his way towards the stern of the ship, a knife in his hands. How interesting! There’s also a door that transports you back to the real world where time ostensibly moves like it should.
You notice the door to the captain’s quarters is now open, and a second pile of bones lay just inside. You approach and flick that pocket watch open once more, primed to do more detective work. Another fade to black, another wonderful musical sting.
The man you know now as the captain continues to kick ass, taking care of a yet unknown assailant in his room. You have some details to fill in but not enough for definitive decisions. Too quickly you’re foisted back into real time, but no matter – there’s another body in this room.
If you’re like me, this third trip through the Memento Mortem frustrates you. There is no dialogue. Only the sounds of a brutal and ultimately deadly scuffle fill the darkness. You recognize this new man as the knife wielder from before, but the game apologetically tells you there isn’t yet enough information to even guess at his identity. Shit, you think. That’s now three unidentified bodies on your plate. Things are rapidly growing beyond your control.
After jaunting out of the Memento Mortem yet again, you take a steadying breath and decide to press on. You’ve already spotted a fourth skeleton in the captain’s chambers.
It was during this flashback that I first considered developer Lucas Pope was finely tuned to the emotions his players would eventually feel while playing Obra Dinn, because the fourth body is a tall, refreshing drink of clue water.
In his final moments, the captain reveals much and hints at more, revitalizing your vigor for the task at hand. It’s such a smart way to convey to the player how the pacing of the game will play out. Some bodies will provide almost everything you will need to immediately identify both them and their fate. Others will look like sadistic creations to make you tear out your hair. Discovering the full truth of what happened aboard this ship will take deduction, guesswork and more than a little creative savvy on your part. The game even says so at the end of this last scene in Act X. The final message from Pope, a simple “Good luck,” does not sound so much a challenge as it does an earnest wish.
Whether you realize it or not, you have everything you need to play Return of the Obra Dinn. You know the stakes of the narrative. You know the verbs of the game and how to interact with its systems. You even know your own limitations and how to proceed when you eventually hit a logic wall. But all of this information, this tutorial, was wrapped so well in building a world and a scene both otherworldly and violently real that you never felt bereft, nor instructed.
Pope provided information when necessary, delivered in simple sentences and illustrated within the formalized structure of the book. That clear dichotomy between the exploratory and discovery parts of the game and the deductive parts help your mind work out the 60 odd riddles of the crew’s deaths.
As you progress, the game will explore what the Memento Mortem can do but never alter that main exploratory verb. If you made it this far, the rest of the game just builds naturally on a strong foundation.
But there’s one more part I consider part of the tutorial, and it’s just as important as everything that came before. If a game must onboard its players, there comes a time when the world opens back up and they can take their gathered tools and really play the dang thing, which can feel jarring and disconnected.
Obra Dinn kicks you out into the open seas with a reveal that upends everything you likely assumed about the story and tone of this game. After witnessing the captain’s suicide, you notice a body in a bed next to him. Ah, you think. Sickness, probably.
And then you take one more trip through the Memento Mortem.
Immediately things are different. The dialogue is muffled by storming winds and lashing rains. Men yell and wood cracks in the distance. A woman screams for her husband and is rebuffed. A thunderous crack heralds you into the flashback proper, and it is a scene from hell.
Part of the mast has broken off and crushed this woman’s skull. Around her men are scrambling around a ruined deck, tattered sails and snapped ropes flying everywhere. And outlined in the peripheries is a terrible beast, perhaps missed at first among all the debris and rigging. But it is there, tentacles squirming up the sides of the ship, grasping at sailors, tearing apart wood and bodies alike, destroying all it touches.
Now, you have to reconsider everything, but it’s a thrill instead of relief. The task of learning to play the game transitions seamlessly into simply playing. The explaining text and onboarding tasks felt less like playing through an instruction booklet than being shown a neat trick with a new toy. Pope understood how to sell his concept mechanically and thematically without condescending, and it set me up for one of my favorite gaming experiences of last year.