My favorite video game of 2018 was Return of the Obra Dinn, a murder mystery of sorts in which you step into the muddy boots of an insurance agent, assessing the aftermath of a deadly happening aboard a merchant ship in 1807.
Your “weapon” is a notebook, in which you assemble images, text, and environmental clues to piece together what took place on this doomed voyage. The game is a masterpiece. Damn near perfect. But sometimes at night, as I stare at the ceiling waiting for sleep, I wonder: what if that game about the ghost ship in the East India Trade Company ... had an alt-country soundtrack?
Developer Tim Sheinman has given us the answer. Rivals is a narrative puzzle game in the mode of Obra Dinn, but rather than piece together the horrific deaths aboard a two-centuries old boat, you must chronicle the break-up of a nearly two-decades old indie band that sounds a fair bit like Wilco.
This pitch hinges on the quality of the music, so give it a listen for yourself:
Rivals drops you into the role of the band’s biographer, who must assemble the chapters of her book in chronological order. To discover the correct timeline of events, you flip through posters, postcards, diaries, and notebooks. You play back interviews on cassette tapes. And most importantly, you listen to some surprisingly catchy songs from the band members, including side-projects and solo albums.
The music is good. Like, legit “I would listen to this outside the video game” alt-country tracks.
Once you piece together a section of the book, the game drops a fresh set of clues on your virtual writer’s desk. Some clues mention a date, making your job easy. But some clues require legwork. You must Google real-world events mentioned off-hand by the characters to plot when coinciding fictional events took place.
Rivals is quite charming and, at only an hour or two long, doesn’t wear out its welcome. If Return of the Obra Dinn is the chart-topping hit of this growing little genre, Rivals is the local garage band album that gets a glowing write-up in the alt-weekly: small, messy, lovable. Rivals is seemingly built with one audience in mind: older weirdos like me who don’t mind a little more Wilco-style music in their detective games.
Rivals is available now on Steam and itch.io. The game was played using a download code provided by the developer. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.