Return of the Obra Dinn, Henry Jenkins, and Bad News

The beauty of The Return of the Obra Dinn, for me personally, lies in the fact that the game is a masterpiece in storytelling spatially and temporally.  I feel that though Henry Jenkins describes narrative architecture of being evocative, enacting, embedded, or emergent, Obra Dinn to me not only exhibits characteristics of several, but also subverts general conventions of these categories.

When playing Obra Dinn, I was in awe of the different ways that the narrative unfolded and untangled over time, both spatially and temporally.  It reminded me the most of an embedded narrative, one where viewers “assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues.”  Each snapshot of a death, as shown by Memento Mortem, slowly unraveled more about the storyline as the player searches around the ship to find contextual clues and information.  Jenkins, however, also describes embedded narratives as “less of a temporal structure than a body of information,” though I would argue that Obra Dinn stands forthright as an embedded narrative that also prides itself on its complex sense of temporality.  It reminds me of the game Braid, where moving backwards means moving forward in the game; in advancing in the storyline of Obra Dinn, one has to advance earlier in the storybook, then jump back to areas forwards (technically backwards) in the story to hunt for earlier clues.  Obra Dinn excels in its ability to time almost begin to exhibit a spatial aspect, as it did not feel like a line in 1D space, but rather, a multidimensional platform in which to roam through.  Timeline events were sloppy—and not even in a bad way—in being able to tell a story in which there were events stepping over each other and lapses where the player had to fill in gaps purely through inference, the game is successful. Obra Dinn is a testament to the fact that stories need not unfold linearly; real life occurrences and events are complex and messy, spilling over each other and affecting each person differently—so why can’t media narratives be the same?

Another question I have been grappling with that may be interesting for others to comment on is how Obra Dinn is either different from or similar to Bad News, and how each game excels in its own way.  For starters, Bad News exists in a shorter timeline and involves only one death.  Narratively and temporally, however, Bad News doesn’t unfold backwards in the same way as Obra Dinn: sure, it starts from the death, but one advances forwards in time to find the next of kin. In Jenkins’ terms, I feel that the game blurs the lines between an embedded and emergent narrative.  Spatially, Bad News felt like Obra Dinn in the embedded way that one explores an ecosystem fertile with narrative clues and hints; however, Bad News also exhibits an emergent narrative in that the storyline can be actively shaped and molded by whomever the player chooses to visit.  There was an aspect of live improvisation involved that reminded me of games with open-space worlds like The Sims that Obra Dinn could not provide.

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