20 January 2020

Fax art

I tend to think of my first computer game as being Baldur's Gate, but it's possible that it was actually The Manhole.

A lot of that Mac software I cut my teeth on was stuff published by Brøderbund: The Manhole and Myst, both by Cyan, Prince of Persia, Kid Pix. Those Cyan games in particular maintained a deliberate picture book metaphor. The worlds called Ages in Myst, if you didn't know, are contained in books authored by the game's characters. The Manhole, before Myst, and before its Masterpiece Edition CD-ROM remaster, was originally a black-and-white HyperCard program.

There's a pleasant sense of continuity between those 1-bit raster graphics and the drawings one finds in analog picture and puzzle books by the likes of, say, Christopher Manson. And a common thread  one can follow through all of these images is a relish for perspective.

Which brings us to the present, or nearly. Almost as late to the party as our eagle-eyed East India Company insurance inspector, I've now completed 2018's Return of the Obra Dinn, and, in hopes of extending aforementioned continuity, hereby submit my own report on the maritime calamity.

Spoilers ahead.

There's been much ado about Obra Dinn's core conceit, the Memento Mortem: a pocket watch which allows our anachronautical claims adjuster to visit the time of death of each passenger in a theater-in-the-round tableau vivant mort. Now we've seen this sort of thing in plenty of "detective" games, from BioShock to Tacoma. And there's certainly been no lack of first-person perspective puzzles in recent years, basically since Portal hit in 2007. As with many strong designs, though, the ingeniousness here lies in its algebra. The "audio log" precedes the 3-D scene in intertitles, without attribution, while the pictorial testimony is limited to a moment frozen in time, inviting intense scrutiny over every element of the composition, from blocking to poses to the placement of debris, trails of blood...

Obviously, collecting deaths is always a pleasure in itself; see: roguelikes. But there's a few other things I like about this. The fragmenting of the sensory evidence requires the player mentally sync it themselves. Enter ~imagination~. Many puzzle games, especially those drawing on the tradition of "enchanted" picture books—games like Gorogoa—ask for lateral thinking, which usually means visual punning. Obra Dinn, on the other hand, like its predecessor Papers, Please, bases its challenge in simple documentary cross-referencing. This is fine with me. It avoids a lot of the problems you get with those games' esoteric fussiness. Besides, there's enough enchantment here already: the pocket watch, the kraken(!), the kelp-men riding spider crabs(!!).

In fact I think key to Return of the Obra Dinn's charm is its juxtaposition of bureaucratic pedantry with mythical, magical, tentacular high seas tragedy. This contrast manifests pretty thoroughly in the interplay between 2-D and 3-D navigation, namely between the logbook and the ship. Bridging these two GUIs nicely is the dithered monochrome shading.

When I played the demo a few years back, I thought the look was smart but potentially distancing. Having now explored every nook and cranny of the good ship Obra Dinn, I actually find myself quite moved by it. The blinking pixel flies indicating a corpse. The rigging of the rigging. The mermaids' shells. The carpentry. I'm talking out of my ass here, but even the poly counts seem just so. Every bevel, every brace, every molding is a delight. It makes 3-D modeling seem both dignified and fun. The notes of surrealism, too, are placed so judiciously and memorably. Primarily the portal leading out of each death scene, which features the most classic, most hauntingly perfect lintel I can at this present moment imagine.

The 2-D side of things is really just as impressive. Clearly a lover of paperwork, Mr. Pope has done a brilliant job implementing the logbook at the heart of this "Insurance Adventure". We're entering Blendo waters here, but Pope proves up to the task. Leafing through the catalogue is a joy: tactile but never cumbersome, with handy bookmarks, sensible controls, humanely sized fonts, and an anchor to the table of contents. In this table of contents we find listed the ship manifest, some maps, chapters handily transcribing each misfortune, a glossary for the landlubbers, and three sketches of "Life at Sea" by Edward Spratt, the resident artist. Within these invaluable drawings are clues as to passengers' stations, origins, and relationships, with some particularly juicy details to be perused in the rendering of a court-martial titled "Justice at Sea," which the player can eventually visit themselves—you can even see Spratt there sketching away in his chair off to the side.

I experienced a handful of such frissons during my time aboard the Obra Dinn, but, especially given the intimate nature of the setting, I wouldn't have minded a couple more. Just one more tender irony, just one more farcical manslaughter, just one more insidious intrigue. All in all, at the end of the day, I found the chronicle relatively straightforward. Some fates were obscure, but it never got too baroque or dastardly. I do enjoy how basically the game's red herrings are all in the menu of possible deaths, but part of me wishes I did have to deduce that so-and-so's food had been poisoned. 

Neither is there much emphasis on supplying motives or managing suspicion. Compare with SpyParty—what if the player were able to assign confidence to their answers themselves, rather than being vindicated in batches of three. Or what if these batch assessments were some sort of limited resource? For better or for worse, Obra Dinn does a lot of the note-taking for you. And of course there's no constraints on your time or attention like in SpyParty. All this being the case, I didn't really need the game to tell me I didn't have enough information yet to identify this person, or if I did, that doing so correctly would be 3 difficulty ticks hard. And even when you're left with the hardest nuts, your list of unsolved fates has at this point dwindled down to where the combination space becomes brute-forcible. I can't blame Mr. Pope for worrying about the difficulty of a puzzle that must have been very difficult to compose, but I think he might have gone a bit overboard, especially since players are eased into their task anyway. Which brings up another quibble, which is that some doors start locked. Why? The ship is laid out in four levels which roughly correspond to the story's acts in reverse, and the corpses strewn about each level should do a good enough job guiding the player's inquiry organically.

These nitpicks mostly sank away, though, when I got to the end of this ripping yarn and came to appreciate what Return of the Obra Dinn really is. It's lighter than I was expecting, less of a gut punch than Papers, Please. Rather, it's a poised and sturdy update on graphical adventure gaming. Its conceit is smart, and satisfyingly systematic, but I think the final evaluation of merit rests less on cleverness or novelty than on the suavity and time-bulwarking craftsmanship of a superbly talented facsimilist. 

A very handsome production. Well done.