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Did You Play Educational Games In the Computer Lab During Lunch? Try Return of the Obra Dinn

In the pre-smartphone days, there were few options if you found yourself sitting alone at lunch. Being assigned to lunch Period C while the rest of your friends group is in Period A means you’ve torn through the entire Animorphs and Goosebumps catalog and maybe even a few Stephen King books by Veterans Day.  You could play Pokemon Emerald on Game Boy Advance, but due to the brain-rotting potential of popular video games, they were banned by the school.

Since middle schoolers couldn’t  be trusted to go to the bathroom on their own, the only other place where you were permitted to spend lunch was the library, with its dubiously funded computer lab with the finest iMacs and Gateway PCs the 1990s had to offer. 

After fucking around in Microsoft Paint, looking up dirty words in Encarta, and round after round of Solitare, the Paraprofessional room monitor might deem you worthy to gaze upon the binder of “Educational” CD-ROMs: Oregon Trail, Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, Math Blaster!, Jeopardy!, and if you’re lucky, SimCity or SimAnt, or the gold standard, Where In the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

If this first-person puzzle adventure rings true, then you’ll want to sign in at the front desk for Return of the Obra Dinn.

Created by Lucas Pope and released in 2018, the player takes the role of an insurance adjuster sent to investigate the Obra Dinn, a ship that carried an international crew and mysterious passengers and disappeared only to return five years later completely empty. 

As the Chief Inspector of Insurance & Claims of the East India Company, the player is tasked with finding out what happened to the 60 souls aboard the ghost ship. To aid in this task, there’s an unfinished log, Return of the Obra Dinn: A Catalogue of Adventure & Tragedy, and a pocket watch, the Memento Mortem. When opened around a corpse, the watch allows you to observe the moment of death. Armed with the book’s manifest, chapter headings, and ship layout, your job is to navigate through the visions conjured by the Memento Mortem to identify the remains scattered around the ship and determine the (very specific) cause of death. Once three people are correctly identified by name and fate, the game confirms they are locked in with a satisfying orchestral sting.

In addition to the unique gameplay, the game’s 3D, polygonal, pixel-based gray monochromatic visuals harken back to Cathode Ray Tube Monitors and early Macintosh computers.

If an obnoxious teacher were to stick their nose over your shoulder, you can claim the educational value by stating the gameplay requires keen observational skills and deductive reasoning combined with knowledge of history, geography, and anthropological trends to identify the characters and discover the connections between them.

And if an obnoxious classmate calls you lame for playing nerd shit, you can show them the flashbacks with their depictions of violence, gore, and monstrous creatures from the deep.

Return of The Obra Dinn goes beyond the “Makes learning fun,” traps that plagued edutainment titles of the past, it’s an engrossing mystery that harkens back to the Broderbund and Sierra titles from the 1980s.

Watching the tragedy unfold is engaging and genuinely rewarding since the puzzles are seriously challenging and the story of the cursed voyage is very well done.

Return of the Obra Dinn is worth a try if:

  • You love history, mysteries, and history’s mysteries.
  • You took Clue very seriously
  • You want to live in the world of A24’s The Lighthouse

You can give it a pass if:

  • You want to stick to games with the suffix “-em-ups”
  • You rely on brute-forcing to get through games
  • Prefer puzzles of the falling brick variety

Return of the Obra Dinn is available on macOS and Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It is listed as $19.99, but is often on sale.