Return of the Obra Dinn is a game about occupying space and transcending time. When the player first boards the ship, the image which they are greeted with is foreign and foreboding. The distinct 1-bit color scheme creates an aesthetic which is quite unlike most other games, and the ship’s large size with multiple different decks However, the space of the Obra Dinn itself is not the only area which is thoroughly explored and uncovered by the player throughout the course of the game’s run time. The journal, another core mechanical function, is another. The way in which these two spaces overlap creates a cross-section where the player’s spatial knowledge of the world is weaved with larger narrative points into a cohesive presentation.
One of the quotes on game design mentioned at the start of the Jenkins piece is that “interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power”. Return of the Obra Dinn subverts this definition of game narrative by creating different spaces which are simultaneously static and also significantly informed by player choice.
The world of the ship is certainly the most static of the two, though it nonetheless embodies interactiveness through its nonlinearity. The majority of the gameplay consists of engaging finding the corpses of fallen crew members and going back in time to the moment of their death. Here, the narrative of the game is conveyed almost entirely though environmental storytelling, primarily functioning by “embed[ing] narrative information within [its] mise-en-scene” (Jenkins, 5). The freeze-frame gives the player time to walk around the static death scene and investigate every single detail, from the decorum on the walls to the expressions on the faces of each and every nearby character. Though these are told individually from one another, they occur in the same, and often overlapping, spaces of the ship. When the player exits a chapter (a sequence of these individual scenes which tell a short narrative), they return to walk around the ship with greater knowledge of how it entered its dilapidated state.
In the assigned interview, Felix Barrett provides an account of the experience of his play Sleep No More. This play takes approximately 9 hours worth of content, but each experience lasts only a few hours. This forces participants to pick a route through the narrative and leads to a naturally divergent experience, even if the content which is being presented is ultimately the same. Though Obra Dinn presents all of its information on a single play through, it nonetheless parallels Sleep No More through its nonlinear yet sequential storytelling. Most of the chapters in Obra Dinn can be encountered in any order as all of the corpses are in existence on the ship. The only guidance the player is provided is a start location conveniently near the dead first mate and a map detailing how the sequences map onto the physicality of the ship. This allows for some degree of player agency, as they may choose their starting point, which will lead to different identities being revealed earlier in their experience.
However, the vast majority of player interaction in this narrative-driven game occurs in the space of the journal. Like the ship, opening the journal is also an intimidating experience at first. The game forces the player to flip through all of its pages, including more than a hundred pages of unanswered questions and puzzles which are to be encountered. As the player moves through the space of the ship and its physical space is narratively contextualized, the changing physical space of the journal provides further narrative context. As puzzles are revealed and sufficient information is provided, the blurred faces of the passengers become revealed, allowing for the player to guess their identity. Trial and error is encouraged because of its system of confirming identities in threes, encouraging the player to flip through its pages and look for any hints they might have missed. The order in which the narrative is truly revealed is formed by the player’s decisions with regards to whose identity they try to reveal, especially because finding out the true name of one crew member can snowball and allow for educated guesses on multiple others.
The book serves as a tracker of progress, progress which is nonlinear (despite the linear narrative) and dependent on the game’s interactive elements. Additionally, it’s inclusion of the map and crew member photos encourages familiarity with the information it provides, and players will find themselves hopping from page to page. One particular clue, regarding the location of where the escaped passengers went, requires either an extraordinary memory or many many minutes of flipping through the book’s entire contents. Though the narrative is presented on the space of the ship, the pages are where a great amount of the narrative context is provided, and the narrative arises from the interaction between these two areas.
At the end of the game, the Obra Dinn herself has a completely different feeling than at the start. What previously felt empty and foreboding now feels storied and full of historic, fantastical drama. The interactive nature of the story contrasts greatly with the necessity of linear storytelling, but creates an experience which feels captivating and engaging (especially as compared to similar games like Gone Home wherein the player is forced to more linearly through the narrative). Because of this storytelling style, by the time the player disembarks the Obra Dinn it feels as though they were one of the passengers themselves. The game is an excellent example of how to construct an interactive narrative and exemplifies many of the unique features of the format of video games.