Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastic video game. If Celeste hadn’t come out this year, it would be my no-contest Game of the Year; as it stands, it’s a pretty damn close contest.
But, I’m going to do some long-form complaining about the ending, because this is simply the kind of person I am. Spoilers follow, obviously.
Obra Dinn presents the player with a mystery, or rather, a series of them. At its most basic, there are 120 mysteries that the player is tasked with solving: for each of the sixty members of the crew, who are they, and how did they die?
But of course, this is all wrapped up in the greater mystery: what the hell happened here? Why is this ship being targeted by sea monsters? What’s going on? While the identities of the crew members are the crux of the gameplay, the mystery of the ship itself is the crux of the narrative. And this is driven in part by a huge gap in the sequence of events: chapter 8, the Bargain, which you can only uncover after you’ve solved everything else.
So far, so fine. That’s how a mystery narrative works, after all: there is a big question mark that doesn’t get resolved until the end. That’s what makes it a mystery… you spend the bulk of the time free to wonder and surmise until such a point as an answer is provided.
The problem I have is this: going into The Bargain, I had a ton of questions.
What are the shells?
How do they work?
How did the Formosans get them?
Where were they going with them?
Why take them over the water if they understood the danger?
How did we escape from the kraken?
Those were the questions driving me forward.
The chapter… kind of answered the last one, and also answered “How did the Obra Dinn get back to England?” which, to be honest, I wasn’t asking, although I was amused to learn.
But, like, I had more questions. Big ones. And no answers were provided.
Don’t get me wrong, I am very musch pro-ambiguity. I didn’t expect or want everything to be tied up in a neat little bow, and the fact that there are two bargains in this chapter—the captain threatening the mermaids and the third mate giving up the shells—is lovely! Did the attacks stop because the mermaids were cowed into submission, or because they were given what they want? Did the attacks truly stop… everyone after this point died at the hands of humans, sure, but were the sea creatures actually done or just biding their time? Was the return of the Obra Dinn a way to fulfill the promise made to Martin, or should it be read as a threat?
Ambiguity is good. I don’t want all the answers. And when it comes to the nature of the shells themselves, given that they are connected to these truly alien undersea entities, I’m cool knowing only the vaguest details. We can make assumptions… the sea creatures only attack when the shells are exposed, we know they mustn’t be put in the water, they are clearly a magic ocean artifact of some sort. But “why were they on this ship” is such a fundamental question, and we get nothing on that.
So what would I have done?
The last surviving Formosan, Chioh Tan, shoots the traitorous second mate, gets confronted by the captain, and is immediately spiked to death by a mermaid. What if that didn’t happen?
Instead, let’s revise things. As before, Chioh is getting chewed out by the captain and the mermaid attacks, but this time Chioh is just off to the side; he gets a nasty cut, but the poor chump behind him still gets killed. Nothing else changes until the end of the chapter, when Filip the captain’s steward kills Naples, the captain’s line is something like “Throw him in the lazarette with the Formason!”
This tells the player that Chioh is still alive at this moment and where he is, and this means that there will be a third person’s perspective in the epilogue chapter.
Nothing else needs to change in the other chapters; in fact, I would say that it’s a little better to have three die in the lazarette, because I liked the fact that the book confirmed your answers in sets of three, and found it rather inelegant that it switched to sets of two at the very end. Now it can remain in sets of three all the way to the end.
Anyway, I don’t know what, precisely, might happen in the lazarette, but having Chioh and Filip there gives us so much room to play! We experience this chapter in reverse, so let’s have Chioh die before the captain shows up to kill the mermaids, but after Filip opens the chest. Could be of anything. Could be a scene where all he says is “So… thirsty…” and dies, which gives us an opportunity to select “died of thirst” which would be fun. And that links us to Filip’s death, and gives the two of them a few lines of dialog.
They do not speak the same language, but the book translates for us, so they can still have a “conversation” in which Filip, who is next to the chest with the shells, tries to open it up, and Chioh, who is on the other side, tells him why he shouldn’t. It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it could answer a couple questions—it’s the last death vignette in the game, and it makes sense for it to provide some new detail that sheds light on the mystery as a whole.
“What are you doing? Don’t touch that chest! The beasts will find us a hundred times faster! We have to return it to the English devil who sold it to us! Stop it!”
Bam. Not a great line, I did just come up with it off the top of my head, but it puts perspective on the trip: the Formosans don’t really know what the shells are themselves, but presumably they have been suffering from sea monster attacks, and they need to return these shells. Allows for another mystery (who gave them the dang shells?) but makes their segment of the plot make sense—its dangerous to take the shells on the water, but they needed to get to England as fast as 1800s technology would take them. Filip, of course, doesn’t understand what Chioh is saying, and his death is unchanged, he opens the chest, reveals the shells, and burns to death.
Or, of course, something else. This isn’t a perfect idea to be sure. I just wish there had been a little something more.