The objective of Return of the Obra Dinn is to identify the fates of crew and passengers on the ship on its last voyage in 1802. A fate consists of a name, the means by which they died, and potentially their killer's name. Fates can be filled in at any time and derived from any information available to you, but the main means of obtaining information is through memories of the moments at which crew members died.
The game begins with a boatman dropping the inspector (the player) off at the Obra Dinn. Left-click or press space while looking at the ladder to climb aboard. Use the WASD keys or arrow keys to move about the ship. When the boatman shouts that the box you brought is too heavy, return and left-click or press space looking at the chest to get the book and pocketwatch. You are then free to explore the ship.
Exploring the ship
You can move about the ship freely (except for the rigging, the masts and the bulwark) and use the spacebar or click to open doors. Doors where the keyhole appears as a line can be opened; doors where it appears as a cross cannot. A padlocked door cannot be opened, but you may find a way in at the end of the game. Press E or the right mouse button to zoom in.
As you have memories and fill in the book, the lower decks will become available to explore. If you have run out of leads, be sure to check the (smaller) stairwell hatches to see if they have opened. (The large hatches with square holes in their covers are cargo hatches, and will not open during exploration.)
Accessing memories and using the watch
If you approach any corpse or other dead remains, the inspector will automatically take out their watch. (Not all dead remains are obviously visible, but the inspector will always automatically produce their watch when in range.) Clicking the mouse will enter the memory corresponding to that corpse. Clicking a second time while the memory entry animation is running will abort the process.
While in a memory, you can move freely around, and zoom in, and examine items. You cannot interact with doors or other items while in a memory. You cannot initially use the watch on corpses found in a memory. After a certain amount of time, the memory will fade out, and the corresponding page of the catalogue will be filled in with the information on the corpse and a slot for the two items of the fate(s) connected to it. (A small number of memories do not have fates connected with them in which case the text for the page will be filled in immediately.)
When you leave the book, you will return to the memory. To leave the memory and return to the real Obra Dinn, you must find and pass through an open doorway that appears to lead into empty space.
Some memories, however, have follow-up memories where you can explore the death of a corpse who is only visible in the memory. If this is the case, then when you return to the memory, the characters in the memory will appear in white outline shadows and the watch will begin to shake. You must locate the one corpse that is solid white and use the watch on it. When you do, you will return to the real Obra Dinn and the watch will be shaking again; clicking will release a white floating trail. Follow the trail and it will eventually cause the corpse seen in the memory to appear on the Obra Dinn; you can then use the watch on that corpse in the normal way. Memories with follow-ups typically do not have doorways and cannot be left until their follow-up has been unlocked.
There are two exceptions to this: First of all, some follow-up memories take place off the Obra Dinn. In these cases you will not be returned to the Obra Dinn after finding the corpse that triggers the memory; you will simply move directly to the follow-up memory.
You may enter any memory as many times as you like. If you enter a memory for the second time, the following rules change:
- Instead of the slow fade, you will enter the memory instantly with two string notes.
- The memory will not fade until you choose to leave. The page will already be filled in.
- The exit door will appear on all memories, even if they have follow-ups.
- Approaching a corpse with a follow-up memory will cause the watch to appear, and clicking on it will transport directly to that follow-up memory with a distinctive loud drum roll.
- Clicking before the memory starts skips the written dialog that is shown when the memory is viewed for the first time.
Using the book
The book is the main method by which you will fill in fates. Pressing tab at any time opens the book, and the arrow keys or WASD can then be used to leaf through the pages. You can fill in fates at any time by clicking on the relevant page of the book and selecting the crew member's name and fate from the menus that appear.
While zooming in on a person – living or dead – a white outline will surround them. Pressing tab at this time will immediately open the book to their fate, if it has been filled in. If it has not been filled in, it will open to sketches with the person highlighted.
The pages of the book are filled in by seeing memories. Each time you see a memory for the first time, a new page will be filled in with gaps for the fate(s) in question. When you see all of the memories that make up a chapter, a mark will be made on the first page of that chapter. In addition, if there are any characters whose corpses were not seen in memories (because they were destroyed or are not accessible to you), extra pages at the end of the chapter will appear to hold their fates.
The book includes material such as a map of the ship and the ship's route. These can provide valuable clues.
- Passengers are considered part of "the crew" in the game although normally they would not be.
- Sometimes when moving between pages of the book, the mouse pointer will shake. This does not indicate anything of importance to the mystery. It is simply to make it easier to see the pointer when it has moved.
- If a character's face is blurred, it means that the game does not believe you have enough information to deduce that person's identity. You are allowed to choose to try anyway, but in most cases, if you are playing the game properly, you will in fact not be able to identify them.
- When a character's face becomes clear, you have seen the memories necessary to identify them. This does not necessarily mean you can identify them immediately as it may be necessary to identify others first.
- The number of triangles – one to three – next to the face indicates the difficulty of deducing that person's identity. These are fixed by the developer and do not change as you gain information. Identities with only one triangle generally imply that the person's name is mentioned in dialogue at some point.
- The sketches show all faces on the ship when moused over. They also show the currently known name and fate of that person.
- The maps of the ship are updated each time you find a corpse to indicate its location.
- On the page for a fate, clicking on the dialog will show the dialog in text. This will not necessarily indicate all clues that can be gotten from the audio dialog (such as accents). However, an X next to a line of dialog indicates that the speaker is the person (or one of the people) in the diorama for that page, which may not be clear in the audio.
- When filling in a person's identity, a line through the identity means that that name is already assigned to another person, although possibly incorrectly. Choosing an identity with a line through it will mark the selected person as having that name, and the person previously assigned that identity as "unknown".
- If a person's identity has been found via a fate that has been locked in as correct (see below), it will not appear in the identity list at all.
- Changing the identity of someone who is named as a murderer on another page will not update the identity of the murderer on the other page. You must return to the other page and correct the murderer's name by hand.
- To revisit the memory associated with a page, you must click on the location of the corpse to mark it on the map, and then walk there by hand.
Correct fates and locking in
Whenever immediately after entering a fate, you have three correct fates in the book that are not locked in yet, the game will immediately take over and identify the three correct fates. They will change from handwritten in the book to printed to indicate that they are locked. They then cannot be changed.
- Identities in locked-in fates will not appear on the identity list and cannot be selected.
- A person's murderer is part of their fate, and their fate will not be marked correct until their murderer is correctly named. A person's role as a murderer is not part of their fate, and a person's fate can be locked in when they are incorrectly named as someone else's killer.
- In some cases, there is more than one correct way to describe a cause of death. If you cannot tell whether you should say somebody "fell overboard" or "drowned," it is likely that the game will accept both.
- Correctly identifying fates will fill in lines on the design on the back page of the book, and in Steam version of the game, unlocks certain achievements.
- While it is possible to achieve correct answers by brute forcing educated guesses when you are unsure which option is correct, especially when there are only a few options that are possible, it should be noted that there is enough information in the actual game to complete the book without a single brute force guess.
Ending the game
When you have seen all memories on the ship, it will begin to rain, and the boatman will call that a storm is coming. This is only a signal that you have seen all memories and can end the game. It does not create a time limit. The storm will not strike the ship during the game. It is not possible to solve all fates in the catalogue without leaving the Obra Dinn with the boatman first.
Once it is raining, you can return to the boatman at any time to end the game. He will ask you to confirm that you want to end. You will return to your study, fill in your report, and then see a letter giving your benefactor's opinion of your investigation. The more fates you have correct, the better this will be. This will also give the Abandon Ship achievement. Your saved game will not be lost. Reloading your save will return you to the Obra Dinn just before your return to the boatman.
- Make sure to explore the whole area of every memory. There may be large areas available apart from that where the victim died.
- The moment a victim died is not necessarily when they were hurt (they may have been wounded and only succumbed later). The exact moment a fatal blow is delivered might not even be seen in some cases
- The Justice at Sea, Under Way, and Formosan Royalty sketches are the largest single source of clues and confirmations in the game. People's proximity to each other may indicate relationships and status (but not necessarily).
- Take note of the map as well.
- People of rank aboard the Obra Dinn wear uniforms. Similarly, everyone has assigned quarters.
What engine was used to create Return of the Obra Dinn?
- Unity 3D. No logo appears on startup because a professionally licensed version was used.
Why is "Macintosh" an option for 1-bit display?
- This refers to the very early Macintosh computers from the 80s and 90s which had one bit displays and for which several games (such as Cosmic Osmo) were made with similar graphics. It does not refer to modern Apple machines, which are actually called "Macs" (Mac is no longer an abbreviation).
Is there a cheat mode or codes?
- The nature of Return of the Obra Dinn's gameplay makes the idea of a cheat mode meaningless. There is a hidden debug menu, but it can only be accessed by modifying the game to run as a debug build, and the functions it offers are unlikely to be interesting; they mostly allow parts of the game to be skipped and display parts of the game's internal state.
Can you disable the 1-bit filter and view the Obra Dinn in full color?
- No. The debug mode can disable the 1-bit effect but the game contains no color image of the Obra Dinn. If drawn in color, the colors are nonsensical because they represent signals to the 1-bit graphics system on how the surface should be drawn.