“You can’t stir things apart,” says Thomasina, the brilliant teenage mathematician and physicist in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Thomasina is talking, I think, about entropy, and entropy is one of those fascinating, dizzying subjects that can make a person wish they had kicked off their Obra Dinn review with a close reading of a Bryan Ferry lyric instead. No matter, Thomasina is talking about the way that the present generally looks like the past after it’s been through a blender. She is talking about the force that means we can remember yesterday and not tomorrow. (For more on all of this you could do a lot worse than tracking down James Gleick’s wonderful book Time Travel: A History.) Sad stuff, I reckon, because there are so many things you might want to stir apart. Over the course of this morning alone I can think of two or three at least. You can’t stir things apart: amazing, amazing line – so rich and funny and direct and unpatronising and profound. I often walk around my house when nobody is there speaking it aloud to myself and the cats. I will probably crochet it on something one of these days.
Anyway, in Return of the Obra Dinn, guess what? You can stir things apart, albeit only temporarily and with very limited agency. This transgression requires magic, which this wonderfully tactile and rigorous game is very happy to accomodate, and this magic is deployed in the name of a great bureaucratic truth. Lucas Pope, who once wrung such drama from the stamps and passports of a border crossing kiosk in Papers, Please, has now delivered a great “insurance adventure”, a romance of book-keeping on the high seas, four years in the making. Speaking of four years, in 1803, the Obra Dinn, a merchant ship of 800 tons, 18 ft draught, was lost at sea with all 51 souls (or were there more?). In 1807 it is back, devoid of life, and ready for an audit and an inquest. It’s your job to board the creaking ghost ship, starkly, ghoulishly bereft in powdery white lines picked out against a muddy sepia background, and uncover what happened and how much insurance is to be paid out. But with nobody left alive, how do you proceed? Magic. Magic of a most practical kind.
Your first tool is a magical pocketwatch that allows you to interrogate any sun-bleached skeleton you find on deck by revisiting the moment of its owner’s death. Actually, you are transported to a moment a few seconds before their death: you hold out the pocketwatch, the hands spin madly (the arrow of time is having a funny spell), the music riffs bracingly, and then the Obra Dinn briskly stirs things apart. What follows is a very short audio drama – always far less than a minute – with the text appearing on the otherwise blank screen to the accompaniment of the spoken dialogue and the creaks and shudders of the good ship. Then, you are suddenly able to explore the very instant of death, frozen in place via a diorama that you can walk around and poke about in.