3Lucas Pope’s previous game, Papers Please, was a riveting thriller which cast the player as a downtrodden border control officer. Keeping with this pattern, his latest creation has you play as a 19th century insurance investigator for the East India Trading Company, with the primary goal being to fill out some paperwork. No, really.
The setup is deliciously simple. The good ship, Obra Dinn, missing for eight years, has drifted into port without a single (living) passenger on board. Your job is to identify each person, figure out how they died, and name who or what killed them. All you have to aid you is a ship manifest, a couple of sketches, and a mysterious pocket watch that makes you privy to the final moment of someone’s life. That’s all there is to it. After a sparse tutorial, the game withdraws, leaving you alone and hunting through a floating puzzlebox where every corpse is a clue.
And it is stunning.
The initial deaths are easy to figure out: man in tricorn hat shoots himself in the face; Captain, suicide. Tick. But with 62 passengers on board, and a variety of horrible ways to die, the investigation soon becomes nefariously complicated. Everything from accent, outfit, rank and age is a vital clue. Woe betide the unobservant. Along the way you unpackage a story that is one part mystery, one part tragedy, and one part – well, something else. Rest assured there are plenty of surprises in store. It’s absorbing in the same way that a good book is, forgoing bloated exposition in favour of tantalizing fragments that gradually assemble into a complete picture. This is not a game that holds your hand, but the diligent player’s efforts are richly rewarded. A couple of deductions literally had me punching the air in giddy joy. When was the last time a puzzle made you do that?
It isn’t perfect. I had to resort to guesswork at least a couple of times, and the nature of the set-up means that it has almost no replay value. But these are sacrifices worth making in the pursuit of something grander: an experience unlike anything else on the market. Miss out at your peril.