There’s so much that goes into making Return of the Obra Dinn, but all of it pales in comparison to the game’s sound design.
In Return of the Obra Dinn, I play as an insurance collector for the East India Trading Company in the 19th century, jumping onto a ruined ship to suss out the fates of each crew member. With the help of my magical compass — which lets me see through time to the moment a person died — I put names to faces and causes of death to corpses.
[Ed. note: This article contains a minor spoiler for Return of the Obra Dinn.]
GOTY #2: Return of the Obra Dinn
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In a game with krakens and crab monsters and killer mermaids, I’ve expected the Obra Dinn itself to feel increasingly haunted, like the Black Pearl from Pirates of the Caribbean. But instead, the world of Return of the Obra Dinn feels empty and peaceful. Aside from the single grumpy sailor who shuttled me aboard the ship and waits for my return, I’m truly alone. There’s no fear of ghosts or ghouls or monsters — the hard times have passed.
The sounds of the ship sell its solitude. The boat is quiet on the open sea; the only noise comes from my footsteps, the rain and the creaky wood as the ship bobs up and down against the waves. There’s no haunting artificial hum, despite the ship being loaded with corpses.
The quietness draws attention to every small noise, giving each of them a sense of purpose. The distinct click of my compass that triggers when I find a corpse indicates I must travel back in time and learn more of the past. When I activate the memory, the screen goes blank and an audio vignette begins. A bit of dialogue plays over a raging storm or the shouts of the crew members, each line a hint to the overall mystery surrounding the Obra Dinn.
My entire focus is directed to the lines of the characters: their jokes, their stories, their screams. Everything is a clue leading toward their identities and the ways in which they died. When the dialogue snippet ends, the screen flashes into a static moment of violence, and my speakers vibrate with the theme music for that particular chapter.
In “The Doom,” one of the earlier chapters, the ship captain’s wife looks for him on the deck. Over the black screen, I hear the crew yell at her to return to the safety of the hull. The sea bubbles around her, then without warning, crack: the sound of wood crashing into bone.
When the moment of death blinks into view, I see that the bubbling was a great kraken holding onto the Obra Dinn and its mast; the crack was the mast hitting the captain’s wife in the head. The image gives context to the sound, but it’s the music that captures the feeling of this horrific moment. Staring up at the kraken for the first time — completely unaware to this point that this otherwise humdrum world of insurance investigation contained such fantastical creatures — I hear the roll of sorrowful horns. The music captures the moment: tragic, grand, of a lost era.
Each chapter has a different musical theme. A gloomy tune plays as sailors fall to illness in the comfort of their bunks. Other themes, like that of “The Doom,” are ominous. The feeling of danger and death is palpable through the music — a stark contrast to the peace and quiet of the Obra Dinn in the present day.
Elevating the role of sound — the way it transports me into and out of a moment, the way it offers clues to the game’s central mysteries — is inspired. Sound serves as the glue that holds the game together. Without the music and the voices, Return of the Obra Dinn would surrender its magnificent sense of place.
And it’s not just the elaborate soundscapes that make Return of the Obra Dinn special, but how these moments of cacophony give way to the hushed silence of the empty deck. Here stands no living soul except my humble insurance collector. Gone are the monsters and mermaids and dying shipmates. All that remains is me, my manifest and the creak of the wooden planks beneath my feet.
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