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The best moment from Return Of The Obra Dinn: the shoe and hammock revelation

Fill your boots

A leg hands out of a hammock in Return Of The Obra Dinn, with the RPS 100 logo in the top right corner
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/3909

Return Of The Obra Dinn is, quite rightly, one of the greatest video games of all time. It's certainly one of my personal favourites, and as this year's RPS 100 has proven, it's also greatly beloved by the rest of the RPS Treehouse. A brilliantly conceived murder mystery puzzle box (boat?) that not only has you working out whodunnit, but howdunnit, Obra Dinn is one of those detective games that really thrusts you into the thick of its deduction process. As you set about working out the identities and causes of death for each of the 60 souls onboard, it places you firmly in front of the ship's wheel before giving you free rein to steer its hull of supernatural horrors into whatever port of judgment you deem fit.

There are no truly wrong answers in Obra Dinn, but due to the nature of how you go about solving it, it's also one of those games I can't play too often without feeling like I know all the answers already. It's only now, five years later, that I feel like I could probably go back to Lucas Pope's nautical masterpiece and marvel at it afresh on a second playthrough, but there's one particular set of crew unmaskings that even its time-travelling stopwatch can't erase from my memory banks. Spoilers to follow obviously, but if you know, you know. I'm talking about the shoe and hammock revelation.

A sailor sleeps in a hammock with his arm and leg out in Return Of The Obra Dinn
The attention to detail in Return Of The Obra Dinn is actually absurd once you start looking. Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/3909

Of course, the other brilliant thing about this game is that even if you've played and finished Obra Dinn, it's entirely possible that this combination of words means absolutely nothing to you. At the time, I remember fellow Obra Dinners discussing all sorts of wild theories about how they'd bagged and tagged certain passengers during their playthrough, but incredibly nearly all of them were different and distinct, even when it came down to the same individual crew members. It's not often that games let you arrive at the same answer via different routes, but the fact that this - the work of a single developer - did made it feel even more precious and rare. It's a torch that games such as Paradise Killer have since taken up and run with to great effect, but for me, the sheer elasticity of thought present in some of Obra Dinn's knottier murder puzzles remains unmatched - and the shoes and hammock situation is a brilliant example of it.

I was probably about two thirds of the way through Obra Dinn when I eventually realised I just didn't have any idea who a particular set of sailors were. While the bulk of the ship's passenger list are all sea men, there's a set of Chinese civilians on board who are, for the most part, very much background characters in this tale of death and deception. They rarely appear in other scenes, and their general movements are quite hard to pin down. The same goes for some of the lesser crewmen of other nationalities as well. They're such bit parts that putting a name to a face is really quite difficult, and without that all important name, you can't really note down exactly how they died.

A crew is pulled overboard by mermaids in Return Of The Obra Dinn
When you know what you're looking for, it feels like you've unlocked a whole region of your brain that didn't exist before. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/3909

But when I finally got to the scene that lets you into the crew quarters, I had a genuine eureka moment. While most sailors had rudely pulled a blanket over their snoring noggins to prevent immediate identification, I noticed that many had lazily left their legs out over the side of their hammocks. An innocuous detail from afar, you might think, but as I moved closer to see if I could sneak a peek at maybe just an inch of a nose, or a sliver of a beard, I noticed what I'd call arguably the single most important detail of the entire game.

The hammocks were numbered.

A light bulb erupted inside my head, and what follows is a rough estimation of everything that pinged out of my brain in that exact moment:

The numbers! The crew list has numbers too! Are they the same? OH. MY. GOODNESS. Holy what!? I cannot even compute what's just happened. This. Changes. Eve-ry-thingggggg.

Looking back, I wish my internal monologue was perhaps just a smidge more articulate than that, but as that old saying goes, this realisation really did blow it all wide open for me. I've deliberately kept it vague (in true Obra Dinn fashion, it would be rude not to leave at least a few dots for you to join yourself), but the end result unlocked a new line of thinking that I hadn't even thought was there, let alone possible. And later, when I heard others whisper the words 'shoes' and 'hammocks' in hushed tones for fear of spoilers, I'd begin fizzing with shared excitement and recognition. Yes! The shoes! Of course, it's the damn shoes. Isn't it amazing? When did you figure it out? etc etc.

A bolt of lightning strikes the mast of the ship in Return Of The Obra Dinn
A visual reconstruction of my eureka moment. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/3909

Had I not noticed these shoes, or indeed the tiny, numbered tags next to them, I'm not sure I would have been able to identify those last remaining passengers, which (I'm not gonna lie) would have irked me to no end. It's possible I might have stumbled on one of the other theories being bandied about at the time, but in a way, I am glad that it was this particular set of events that carried me over that final hurdle. It felt so magnificent in the moment, like I'd figured out some great secret all on my own, and as I wrote earlier in the week, it's these revelations of what seems like pure, bottled magic that make me truly love playing video games.

You know, the best examples of personal expression in an interactive space are so often tied up with building games like Minecraft, immersive sims like Dishonored, and big reactive open worlds like Elden Ring and the recent Zelda games that I think we sometimes forget what it looks like in other genres. Its shape might not be as immediately obvious, but for me, Return Of The Obra Dinn perfectly encapsulates what that freedom of expression looks like in a puzzle game. A problem is presented, its pieces are all there to be discovered, but only you are in a position to fit it all together. The game itself offers no hints or helping hand beyond the power of your magical stopwatch, but it trusts that you'll have the nous to nose about every nook and cranny to serve up a solution. It might not be the correct solution, and you might take a different path to get there compared to someone else. But the very notion that it can accommodate all this in the first place is exactly what makes Obra Dinn as much of a special game as, say, Tears Of The Kingdom. It's a real treasure, and I wouldn't want to forget that for the world.

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