Obra Dinn and (the lack of) emergent narratives

Like most mystery stories, the Return of the Obra Dinn begins at the end, emphasizing the huge difference between narrative (by which I mean the chronological plot) and the discourse (by which I mean how the story unfolds for the player). Rather than driven by time or character arc, the discourse is driven by corpses, which reveal information that the player can piece together to fill in the narrative. Thus, this game resembles Jenkins’ embedded narrative model, in which “narrative comprehension is an active process by which viewers assemble and make hypothesis about likely narrative developments on the basis of information drawn from textual cues and clues” (9). By exploring the corpses, the player can piece together the narrative in a nonlinear fashion. Not only is the discourse nonlinear, but it is cyclical: the player may need to return to previous scenes of the book to edit and revise narrative information. With this nonlinearity, the player has to use logic and deduction, rather than imagination, to find the underlying, pre-structured narrative.

On the other hand, this type of gameplay limits the emergent narratives that can come out of the game. In Jenkins’ paper, emergent narratives are “not pre-structured or preprogrammed, taking shape through the game play,  yet they are not as unstructured, chaotic, and frustrating as life itself” (11). As you play the Return of the Obra Dinn, you often only have fragments of a narrative, and you try to imagine and piece together what happened. Yet these speculations aren’t emergent narratives, the player knows that there is a “correct” narrative that will eventually become apparent, and the player’s speculations are verified at multiple points in the game.

The details provided in the space also limit the emergent narratives. While the smallest detail can lead to key inferences about a character’s death, these details feel like carefully placed breadcrumbs. The boat is pretty bare and the graphics are minimalist, so examining the rooms solely for their decor does not lead to an interesting experience. Instead, the evocative and visually interesting components are the people involved in the death scenes and the objects related to these deaths. This rewards the player with a richer experience if she focuses on the death scenes, instead of the entire space. This is in contrast to the space of Sleep No More, in which an audience member could spend the whole experience playing with the detailed props, which encourage emergent narratives.

In the Return of the Obra Dinn, the focus on the embedded narratives seems to restrict the emergent narratives. The game is an elaborate and intricate “memory palace” (9), so encouraging the player to come up with her own emergent narratives would be at best distracting and at worst confusing. However, I wonder if it’s possible to have a memory palace game that still creates emergent narratives—whether these models can work as hybrids, or if they are more effective when separated.

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