A Look at Deduction in Return of the Obra Dinn

Being a crime solving detective is a fantasy often romanticized in media. It’s been my experience that video games aren’t always great at capturing the essence of what makes deductive fiction so alluring, that was until I played Return of the Obra Dinn. Where other detective games will lead players to a case’s solution, Obra Dinn instead asks them to put their deductive skills to work solving its many mysteries. Here I’d like to highlight how Obra Dinn accomplishes this.

It should go without saying, but there will be spoilers ahead. I’m going to meticulously walk through how to pick out clues and identify one of the crew members. This won’t ruin the game, but if you’re already sold on Return of the Obra Dinn then stop reading this, buy it, play it, and then come back to read this.

For those who don’t already know, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game where you investigate the fate of the 60 person crew of a ship named the Obra Dinn. This is done using a magic pocket watch that lets you observe the moment someone died. You’ll hear a brief sound clip, and then see a static scene of someone, or something dying. It is your job to determine who that person is, and how they died. How they died is often straight forward, but determining the identity of everyone on the ship is where Obra Dinn challenges your detective skills.

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To look at how Obra Dinn differs from other detective games, we need to first understand what elements make up an investigation. Generally speaking, an investigation can be broken down into the following four steps: evidence collection, following leads, making connections, and asserting deductions. Here is an executive summary for what I mean by each listed element:

  • Evidence Collection: finding clues and information related to the current case
  • Following Leads: looking into a piece of evidence that prompted further examination
  • Making Connections: determining how pieces of evidence associate with one another
  • Asserting Deductions: taking all of the information gathered to make a final declaration on what transpired

Obra Dinn shares all of these elements with other detective games, but a difference permeates through the entirety of the experience: player control. Obra Dinn never takes players by the hand and leads them through a case. Instead, players are responsible for determining what is evidence, following up on any leads they discover, making connections, and arriving at a final deduction.

To illustrate this I’m going to walk through identifying one of the 60 crew members. Consider this your final spoiler warning.

vlcsnap-2019-05-14-21h46m30s016

For this scene the body we’re investigating is that of a beef cow which is being killed as food for the crew. Despite this, there is crucial information to be gained here.

Firstly, the transcript of audio that plays when you start the scene:

Transcript

A single piece of information jumps out here: one of the men is identified as Charlie. We have our first piece of evidence: someone in the scene is named Charlie. It’s also worth noting that a person is violently vomiting during the playback of the audio, hence why Charlie is being asked if he’s alright. It’s not captured in the transcript, but this seems like a suitable lead to follow-up on.

four_men

Once the scene loads we see a group of four men, three of which are huddled around a cow while a fourth is off to the side. The orientation of the fourth man suggests he might be Charlie, having run off to vomit away from the other men. Upon closer inspection we see the fourth man is lurched over, and has pools of liquid in front of him, further reinforcing the association between both pieces of audio evidence.

vomit

Having found the connection between the audio playback, and the presented scene we can safely assume this vomiting man’s given name is Charlie, however we don’t know his surname.

One of the tools provided at the beginning of the game is a crew list which has every crew member’s name and position on it. Using this we can identify Charlie’s surname. Unfortunately, we don’t find any Charlies, but we do find two people with the name Charles. Charlie is to Charles what Rob is to Robert, so that isn’t much of a conundrum. However, figuring out which Charles is the man we just saw may prove more tricky.

editted

Along with the crew list, there are also two sketches provided, which depict everyone on the ship. Inspecting anyone on the ship will show their corresponding portrait within the sketches. Interestingly, two of the other three men appear next to Charlie within the drawing. They also seem to be wearing nearly identical uniforms. If these three are dressed the same then we can assume they have the same position on the ship. Spotting that connection we can again cross-reference the crew list to see if this new clue sheds some light on the situation.

uniforms

We can see that Charles Miner, the bosun’s mate, is a position only held by a single person on the ship. However, Charles Hershtik is one of three midshipman. It stands to reason that our Charlie is likely Charles Hershtik given his uniform matched two other crew members, likely the other midshipmen.

guilty

Alright, deduction time.

We’ve observed audio evidence where someone is vomiting and is addressed by name: Charlie. The scene following shows a man lurched over a puddles of liquid meaning this is likely Charlie. We then observed that there are two potential candidates for who this might be: Charles Miner, or Charles Hershtik. Given that Charlie is wearing an identical uniform to two other men, it is fair to assume that he is Charles Hershtik one of the three midshipman, rather than the sole bosum’s mate Charles Miner.

This deduction will be confirmed much later when you observe the scene Charlie dies in, but I think it does a good job of illustrating how Obra Dinn lets the player control each of the four steps to solving an investigation. None of the evidence, leads, or connections are explicitly pointed out by the game. Instead, the player has to connect all the dots and eventually arrive at a conclusion. It’s for this reason that Return of the Obra Dinn is one of the best detective games I’ve ever played. If you haven’t already played it, and what I’ve described here piqued your interest I highly recommend checking it out.

 

21 thoughts on “A Look at Deduction in Return of the Obra Dinn

  1. Structure is good imo. It gives all the right info, without spoiling. It’s easy to read with screen caps help to illustrate on what you’re writing about. A very good post. Game sounds interesting as well 😃

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for taking the time to provide feedback. Very much appreciated!

      Yeah you should definitely check it out. The example I used is probably one of the easier names to figure out. Some of the others require a lot more poking around the different scenes for clues.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No probs!. At the end of the day, how you present your post is entirely up to you. Just be happy with the way you’ve presented it. Believe me, I’ve changed my format/presentations way too often XDD.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been giving about writing is to use as simple language as possible, in other words, limit syllables (and words, lines, paragraphs) whenever and wherever you can.

    The other thing is: what are your goals? who are you writing for and what are you trying to accomplish?

    I can tell you that most readers out there either want to be entertained or informed as quickly as possible, and if you make them work too hard they won’t read. My blog for example, is a terrible example because I don’t give a shit who reads it. It’s good writing but I have no audience.. I just like writing. If you want an actual audience you need to play to their need to be entertained, throw in some humor, be less dense, make your posts more aesthetically pleasing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a similar piece of advice I received from a friend of mine a while back and I’ve struggled to implement it. I think part of the problem is I want to be informative, but that’s kind of boring. I haven’t exactly worked out how to do entertaining while also informing, or maybe there are glints of it in my writing that I’m not aware of and I need to spend more time polishing that. I don’t know…you guys are the ones who read my stuff after it’s posted.

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      1. It’s a process that can only be crafted by continuing to write and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Not sure if you’re running Google Analytics on your site or not, but that helps to see which pieces people do and don’t like (and if nothing else is entertaining to follow over time). Another thing you could do is track down some samples you like, and see what other people are doing.

        But I think most centrally you need to understand why you’re writing and who you’re writing for. If you actually want a large audience and to make a profit it’ll take serious effort and thought.

        On the other hand, if this is just a hobby you’re a bit more free to do whatever you want and treat it like your personal art form.

        FWIW, I’ve been blogging for over eight years now and have never really gained much more than a small handful of readers. But after a while I decided that the act of creating and being able to share it with people was more important to me than making marketable content and profit.

        Some of the posts I’ve written I’ve done so as a personal challenge, others I’ve made deliberately hard to read. If people want to read some of my writing, they need to work. If they don’t want to put in the work, they’re not the people I’m interested in reading my content.

        Check out this post: https://www.nickmcrae.ca/2018/07/a-review-of-postcolonial-state-in.html

        That was basically a ‘let’s see if I can summarize a book written by one of history’s greatest political scientists’.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah I always have analytics. You know I code for my day job, so there is no way I’d be able to survive without data to inform decision making hahaha.

          You’ve given me a lot to think about, Nick. Thus far I’ve treated it mostly like a hobby, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying to extend my reach a bit. Call if youthful enthusiasm that still has me trying to reach a bit of a broader audience. That said, I’d prefer a smaller audience I interact with regularly than a large one that passively enjoys my content. I don’t know if you’ve found this, but getting a comment on something I’ve written is a lot more meaningful than having a high view count total.

          Also creative freedom to do low impact content, and weirder stuff is part of why I returned to writing for myself.

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  3. As far as the structure goes, I like throwing in sub-titles and sections to let the reader know what I’m actually talking about, if the post is long.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I used to do that, but I stopped as a way to force myself to write better topic sentences. Never went back as I found writing without the sub-titles to be less restrictive.

      Like

  4. I don’t really have much to add because I haven’t played it and likely won’t due to my backlog, but I wanted you to know I read it all, it sounds fascinating, and you’ve inspired me to watch a Let’s Play of this title. It’s so cool!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Angie! I appreciate that you took the time to let me know.

      I’d still recommend you’d get the best experience playing it yourself, but if you know that’s not going to happen then absolutely watch a let’s play. Obra Dinn is a fantastic game, one I regret not having gotten too sooner.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard a lot of praise for this game but no one explained it well enough for me to get WHY it is so great. I didn’t know it had that type of “no hand holding puzzle solving” that you could actually feel smart figuring shit out. It’s like The Witness when it comes to looking for clues, and I like that.
    Thanks for clearing things up that famous youtubers wouldn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And thank you for reading. 😀

      To be fair I kind of cheated by using an example ripped straight from the game. My guess is the youtubers you watched were a bit more anal than I am when it comes to spoiling content in a game. I think Obra Dinn is fantastic, and if spoiling a fraction of its content will get other people to try it then that’s a spoil I’m willing to make.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The “Return of the Obra Dinn” was such a hard video game! I think your article explains it quite well, however. There are so many details to remember and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys puzzle games.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Alright, I promised that I would play this game next. Today I finished and finally can read this article (yay!)

    Looks like someone has been watching Gamemaker’s Toolkit 🙂

    Anyway, the deduction part was certainly the strong point of “Obra Dinn” (although that’s a bit like saying the strong point of a racecar is its speed), especially in combination with the liveliness of the scenes and great continuity (like people being seen together on multiple occasions or deduction based on clothing/workplace).

    My only gripe with it was that near the end of the game (apart from its lacklustre ending and conclusion), it lost a lot of its “momentum”. When piecing together the last fates, there was a fair share of guessing involved. Especially with the Chinese Topmen and the Russian Seamen, I just had to rotate their names until they “magically” locked in. Or did I miss some clues towards the names of those people?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bugger all. Even having watched Mark’s video I tried to do my own thing here, but I must have unknowingly still done something too similar if you immediately drew that comparison. 😐

      GMTK was the primary inspiration for this post, and other post ideas I’ve had that haven’t panned out. Evidently Mark is a lot better at breaking down game mechanics than I am…though part of that might come down to him having a decade on me in terms of doing it.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the game (or at least…you seem to have). There was a few that I found by virtue of eliminating all other possibilities. One topman eluded me right until the end (the one you see trying to sneak up on the captain), but other than that I was able to figure most of them out with clues from the game.

      For anyone skimming the comments, this is a massive spoiler. You have been warned.

      I can’t remember the specifics because it’s been 2 months since I played the game. The Chinese topmen are a pain in the ass to figure out, but looking at their shoes while they’re in their beds and cross referencing their crew number to the bunk can help you figure out who is who. It’s easily one of the most tedious mysteries to unravel in the whole game.

      The Russian seamen had a dead giveaway. If I recall correctly, in one of the scenes where the people are getting attacked by the merfolks you’ll see a bag on the one Russian guy, and that same bag is on his bunk in act 2-2 (the one where they’re playing cards while the diseased man is dragged away). Knowing that you can use process of elimination to figure out the other 2 Russian men based on the scenes they do and do not appear in.

      One of the ones that got me for the longest time was the guy from New Guinea. I had to Google tribal tattoos from New Guinea to figure out without a doubt that he was who I thought he was.

      My memory on the game is a bit shaky though. I’d have to troll through the whole thing again to tell you exactly how each person is ID’d like I did in this post.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Haha, I think one cannot really talk about game design and not do at least something similar to Gamemaker’s Toolkit. What struck out to me were your “four steps”. They are almost the same as in his video, that’s where I made the connection (or dare I say: deduction^^)

        Haha, Maba was one of the first people I figured out. As he was hanging with the crew, I knew he had to be a topman or a seaman, and due to his tattoos, he’d be either the one from New Guinea or Sierra Leone. He looked more Asian than African, so I just went with it 🙂

        But I had troubles with Charles Minor (I didn’t even notice that his name was Charles too, so in my head, there was only one Charly^^) and the gunner’s mate, although it should have been pretty apparent that he’s always around the gunner…

        With the Russians I knew which people they were, and which one was the topman, so I waited until I knew one fate for sure and just tried both names with both people and voila 🙂 Similar with the Chinese: I waited for two sure fits (the guys on the escape boat were very helpful, as they had all the same fate) and just brute-forced one Chinese guy after another. I never even thought about the numbers on the beds.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’ll have to be more mindful about the influence other content creators have on my writing then. Thank you for letting me know. Will be one more thing to keep in mind while doing my editing revisions in future. 🙂

          There’s a ton of small contextual clues like that throughout the game. They don’t seem like they have any consequence until your brain finally puts all the pieces together and you realize you’ve been starring at a clue the whole time. Lots of clues are hidden in plain sight. Like the biggest clue for who the doctors and carpenters are is based on when you see them doing their respective jobs in a single scene. It may seem obvious to say, but you don’t always immediately think, “ah yes…this is clearly the carpenter”.

          Still, I’m glad you played the game. Sounds like you enjoyed it. And it was nice to have a brief discussion with someone aside from my SO about the game. I wasn’t able to convince any of my console-centric friends to make an exception to their “no gaming on the computer” rules hahaha.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Ah yes, the professions. I was super hesitant to label the cook and the butcher, despite always being around livestock. I was so sure that this was only a red herring.

            I enjoyed it very much, it had great gameplay, stellar graphic and sound design and the perfect length for a detective game. Discussing games is something I’ll gladly do more often 🙂 Especially PC-games, as I do not have any consoles (maybe one day…)

            Liked by 1 person

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