On the Obra Dinn, I have just a book and a handy pocketwatch that takes me back in time. On my desk beside my computer I have tools too: a notebook, and a finesse for bullet journaling. Return of the Obra Dinn is a game where you piece together fragmented memories aboard a ghost ship. For me, and probably others too, that means writing a lot of clues down.
Return of the Obra Dinn is the latest game from Lucas Pope. Similar to Pope's previous game Papers, Please, Return of the Obra Dinn is a game that's all about minute details. But that's where the similarities end. Instead of living the life of a border agent who is meticulously analyzing passports and citizenship papers, instead you're analyzing the precise moment of a person's death, and finding out when, how, and why they may have died. (And more importantly: at whose hand.)
In it, you play as an insurance adjuster, climbing aboard a ship that's mysteriously washed close to port. The ship, you find, is littered with corpses, but luckily with your trusty ship mast list and a watch that can dial back time to the exact moment of a corpse's demise, you have everything you need at your disposal to figure out what went wrong on the haunting Obra Dinn.
It's not a horror game in the traditional sense, but it's an unsettling one. Some deaths, even obscured by the striking Macintosh-esque art style, can easily make your stomach turn—from a man caught in an explosion by a cannon to another torn apart horrifyingly. With every corpse approached, you never know what you'll find when you activate that pocketwatch, nor what you'll hear either. Every death feels like a surprise, with new revelations to be uncovered in conversations, in surrounding circumstance, and in the details you might miss the first time you walk around a memory. (Luckily, you can always return to a corpse and review their death scenario, which is essential when details start to come together about certain people's identities.)
This is where my note taking has come in. In my handy pocketable notebook I usually use for notes before interviews or thoughts I have while reviewing games, I've accidentally dedicated pages of it to Return of the Obra Dinn. I have the name of the ship outlined, but unlike a lot of my bullet journaling in my bougie Hobonichi Weeks planner or one of my other bound journals, my notes for Return of the Obra Dinn are messy. They show a version of myself in chaos, drawing too-quick conclusions and tepid observations in equal measure; drawing arrows to notes that I think may be connected somehow. For instance, I linked my excited note of "Danish!"—as a man was called a "bloody Dane" in conversation—to "accident with ropes" and "this other dude was present," all connected via a chain of sloppy arrows that I hope I will end up solving soon.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, on your mast of the 60 people present on the ship when it sailed out to sea, you have almost all of the identities at the ready. You have the names of the captain, the mates, the seamen, the passengers, and so on. When a name is called out in the dialogue before someone's death, it's an immediate a-ha! moment; and it always leads to an instant rush of deducing who the named person is in a scene, as you never see who is talking to who: just subtitles and the voices of who's talking before the grisly death is revealed.
The last game I recall scribbling real-life notes for was Polytron's puzzle-platformer Fez, which had its own in-game language to decipher for secrets. I loved finding all the secrets to Fez, and to this day, it remains one of the only games I've 100-percented. Before that, I adopted the same approach to the original Ni No Kuni, wherein I fully translated its in-game language in an old journal. As a kid, I even sketched out a self-guide to synthesizing equipment in Kingdom Hearts synthesizing. It's not an exciting list—just a bunch of numbers and frequencies for items dropping on my way to the Ultima Keyblade—but it shows that for some reason, scribbling things down has always been a hobby for me. Whether on paper, or with a keyboard.
In a Vox article on the rise of bullet journaling in recent years, Emily Roberts, author of the book Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, explained the feeling of power and control that comes from the simple act of writing things down. “When you write it down, you take control over your day or week,” Roberts told Vox. “Writing something down makes it more important in your mind, and you are more likely to remember it.” In all the other video games I take notes during—whether it's thinking something is cool to mention for a review, or my obsessive puzzle-solving notes for Return of the Obra Dinn—that sentiment rings true. I remember the Nazcaän language of Ni No Kuni clearly, but can't recall what I even used it for. I remember the tinier moments in games more likely than I remember the overarching plot, or even all the characters' names.
I have a fickle memory, honestly. Ever since I've taken on bullet journaling and incessant pen-and-paper planning a couple years ago, the organization in my life has improved for the better. Heck, I get a little overzealous with it too: I have three planners, probably a dozen pocketable notebooks I take everywhere, and a bigger blank journal for other lists I make. I'm the type of person who thrives off writing things down, and part of what makes Return of the Obra Dinn so great is that it encourages players to take that extra step and directly apply having that attention to detail. If you're not writing down every little nuance you see of a character to identify them, from what they're wearing to who they're seen frequently with (such as deducing who is a steward to a certain mate), you might be missing out on solving Obra Dinn's mysteries more efficiently.
As a direct result, Return of the Obra Dinn is probably the first game to make me feel like I'm actually solving a mystery. As in me, not the highlighted objects in a triple-A game's detective vision. I'm the one piecing together all the clues, I'm the one having epiphanies. I'm the one solving the fates of everyone who lived for a time upon this mysterious, creepy-ass ship. Return of the Obra Dinn never holds your hand, nor does it let you walk off the plank either. You're just urged to soak in the morbid details of these people, and it's up to you to find out where it all went very, very wrong. The journey is quite an enthralling one, and I definitely have enough ink in my pen and pages in my notebook to help me get to the end.