Narrative ARGitecture: Return of the Obra Dinn

In this blog post I will first discuss my experience playing Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn. I will also analyze how the game can be applied to this week’s readings, Henry Jenkin’s article, Game Design as Narrative Architecture as well as Guy Debord’s, Theory of the Dérive. I will also see how these models of spatial storytelling and narrative architecture can be applied to Alternate Reality Games.

I really enjoyed playing Return of the Obra Dinn. Without speaking at lengths about the gameplay narrative itself and limit potential spoilers, you begin the game as an insurance agent tasked with discovering how 60 crew members died on a ship named the Obra Dinn. You have this futuristic apparatus that allows you to flashback to the moment each character dies. You hear a bit of dialogue before you are transported to the very frame of reality which they are killed. I found this model to be incredibly fascinating because it allows the player to explore as much as they deem necessary to progress through the larger narrative. The games flood of information, scenes, new faces, and dialogue, and murders constantly make you rely on your short-term memory, constantly forcing you to create a mental timeline of what you’ve already discovered. Though I am not even close to finishing the game, I look forward to exploring it much more in the future.

Henry Jenkins brings forth an intriguing narrative architecture heuristic which intersects between four models: evocative space, enacted stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives. Jenkins explains evocative spaces as elements that help one draw from previously existing narratives in an effort to paint a picture and immerse the player within it (Jenkins, 6). While playing Return of the Obra Dinn, I immediately recalled the third episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror. In this episode a detective has this apparatus that allows her to see the recent memories of the people she is interviewing and accidently discovers a murder in the process. Though Return of the Obra Dinn is a monochromatic pixelated game, the similar aesthetic to this Black Mirror episode created an evocative space where I almost imagined the two worlds overlapping in the same reality. ARGs can utilize evocative spaces as they can draw from previously existing narratives and allow players to travel to specific locations and feel as though they’ve entered into the alternate reality.

Jenkin explains the next model of narrative architecture, enacting spaces, as having less to do with overall plot development and rather rooted in a player’s own exploration. He breaks such narratives down into broadly defined goals and localized incidents (Jenkins, 7). Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes the latter form as it allows players to explore over 60 different incidents of deaths aboard a ship. The route which you take to discover each character’s individual narrative is not linear, and rather gives you a unique level of intimacy of a noncontrolled and more immersive game experience. Elements of this model are also highlighted in Guy Debord’s article Theory of The Dérive. Dérive refers to constructive play that incorporates psychogeographical drifting. He states, “let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (Debord, Online Article). This quote conveys the message of focusing on the journey rather than the end destination just as Return of the Obra Dinn is about collection of knowledge that one can only learn through experiencing the narrative’s journey. The notion of focusing on exploration over overall plot development resonates well with the ARG concept of problem finding rather than problem solving.

Jenkin’s third model revolves around embedded narratives. These are narratives discovered within a larger world that help to bring forth new evidence, clues, or background knowledge (Jenkins, 9). Using embedded narratives within games provides a level of substance that separates it from a linear story with a beginning, middle, and end. Embedded narratives give the player a sense of a greater world even beyond the game itself. Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes this tremendously through the use of leapfrogging from one crew members moment of demise to the next, and in some cases using ones memory to discover another crew member’s fate. This Inception-like dream within a dream within a dream made be question which reality my character was in the game at times. ARGs utilize embedded narratives as a tool to interwinte players into the alternate reality. An example of this is when embedded narratives are found when players solve puzzles or ciphered messages, in the form of lost or secret journals of NPCs within the ARGs narrative.

The final model within Jenkin’s narrative architecture heuristic is emergent narratives. Emergent narratives are not predetermined and rather take shape while the player progresses through the game (Jenkins, 11). One could say that by allowing the player to explore multiple dimensions and levels of reality, Return of the Obra Dinn utilizes this model of narratives design. Though, unlike The Sims, the stories of the characters you are bringing forth have already been written. Instead the emergent narrative ‘possibilities’ come from the way you choose to explore the ship’s crew and create a mental representation of a timeline amongst the 60 sub-narratives along with keeping track of the dynamic relationships amongst crew members. ARGs also utilize emergent narratives as the game designers oftentimes are rethinking and rewriting the game’s plot as players progress. We have learned that it is quite commonplace for things to not go as planned. This allows for emergent narratives to be created quite unpredictably.

Works Cited
Return of the Obra Dinn, Lucas Pope
Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Henry Jenkins
Theory of the Dérive, Guy Debord

One thought on “Narrative ARGitecture: Return of the Obra Dinn

  1. I liked how you were able to connect the dots between the reading and the game. I was a little confused on if Obra Dinn actually used the technique of emergent narratives. My understanding is that this is when a game designer accounts and action that is unexpected from the gamer and has to adapt. In this game, it seems like all the possible actions are there. Although there are many combinations, I do not think the game designer would ever be completely surprised by an outcome and have to adapt. But also I guess the gamer does get a lot of choice.


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