Obra Dinn’s Emphasis on Aesthetics

For the assignment to play one of two games, I chose to play “Return of the Obra Dinn.” Obviously, playing this game is different from playing an ARG since this is a virtual game and not a game played out in reality. The game did not give you any real instructions on how to play – it was more of a play and figure out as you go structured game. My initial reactions were that the game’s aesthetics were great and really attributed to its eery and haunted sci-fi theme. From the graphics moving into motion as your player walked through the ship to the narrative and backstory/flashback of each character in the game, all of these elements came together to assist with creating the “backwards” timeline of the game. It successfully uses its aesthetics to emphasize its narrative and enhance the player experience. During the whole time I was playing the game, I was observing the various elements incorporated to deliver an impactful and fun game to the player and how I could use these factors into our own ARG.

In terms of the sci-fi/fantasy aspect of the game with the use of its clock that transports the player to the scene of the event, we have incorporated this element through the use of our network of trees. But besides that, I realized that this game served a greater purpose in aiding the writing process of our Game Design Document. As someone mentioned today in class during our class reflections, the readings lacked in understanding how aesthetics are used in the creation of ARGs. After playing a virtual game where all you’re looking at is a digitized game screen, aesthetics is a big part of why people would want to play a specific game. In addition to having a good narrative, whether a game has outstanding graphics will set it apart from its competitors. One of the challenges that we’ve faced so far as a group is making our game aesthetic clear. We first started off with a sci-fi-esque theme with a portal to another world, but then changed it after a brainstorming session to have our aesthetic be magical realism to set us apart from the typical sci-fi themes that are prevalent in many games.

Unlike a virtual game, we aren’t designing an entire world from scratch like how Obra Dinn created its detailed ship. With less interactive artwork to be created, how could we make our game more mystical? An element I borrowed from the game was the sketches that the artist made of each character that depicted life on the ship. I had my character carry around a sketchpad and sketch various locations to emphasize that these locations are the same yet different due to the world’s condition (i.e., suffering in famine). With the creation of an omnipotent and cryptic tree that could transport items between worlds, we were able to emphasize the magical aspect of the game. Designing the aesthetics of an ARG has been proven to be difficult because there are so many challenges that come along the way. How much magical realism is too much for an alternate reality game? One thing that was important was to make it mystical but not too fantasy like so that it is still clear that this is a game being played in reality, as some things will make the game seem too much like a fantasy game and not an ARG. What are some of the challenges you all have faced along the way when it comes to designing the aesthetics of your game?

Rabbits Holes in Social Media

During Thursday’s class on social media, each group presented on different forms of social media that could be used for potential rabbit holes. Each platform had its own pros and cons to them, some easier to navigate than others. As our group decided on what platform to present on, we had to weigh the options of what elements would make up a “successful” rabbit hole. By going forth with Pinterest, we were able to create a very subtle rabbit hole, spelling out the url for argcourse.com. Some of the challenges we faced along the way was formatting the pinned posts to look like how we wanted it to, as we noticed that the display of the pinterest board varied based on one’s screen size. When choosing a social media platform to create a rabbit hole, I would not suggest Pinterest, as there wasn’t much room for growth or multiple directions it could lead to. It limited what we could do for a rabbit hole.

After watching the other groups present on their rabbit hole via different platforms, such as Tinder, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., it made me wonder what else could these platforms be used for. It’s easy to mimic someone’s identity or create a fake person’s profile on these platforms, easily creating a fake yet plausible character for an ARG and a successful rabbit hole. A rabbit hole is a good starting point to serve as a hint for a game player, but what else can it be used for? During the time that our group constructed our own rabbit hole to be playtested by the class for our ARG, I wondered what else we could use it for.

Our rabbit hole consisted of manipulating Facebook to create an account named “Aspen Groves” along with a “Lost and Found Under UChicago Trees.” Based on the success of one of the group’s fake Facebook account and the various interactions you can create with potential players, it seemed like a good way to introduce the game. In one post in the lost and found page, we had someone post a found piece of paper that revealed our website url. The website url showed a cryptic tree along with a seed on the side, which when clicked, prompted the player to a 2048 game which must be solved to reveal the designated location, the Regentree. Additionally, there were coordinates on the website that led to the tree. I left a map of UC Hicago and the X’s represented areas depleted of resources by the tree base and one of our classmates discovered it. At this point, the rabbit hole was concluded and people have been introduced to the game.

However, that is not the end of the rabbit hole. The format of our game uses the trees and by having this Facebook group, our starting point for the rabbit hole, we can reveal to the players various clues along the way through either losing or finding items under trees and reporting it on the Facebook page. Just like how other games use communication platforms like Discord, the Facebook page will serve as a way for players to share what they have found throughout the game. Although the rabbit hole was the starting point, its use is still alive and does not have to end once played out.

Obra Dinn & Game Design As Narrative Architecture

For this blog post, I am going to talk about the game Return of the Obra Dinn as well as Henry Jenkins’s Game Design As Narrative Architecture. Honestly, I am not super into video games. I appreciate them, but was never quite good. However, I had a great time playing this game due to its narrative. As discussed in class, the game relies on the premise that you are an insurance agent and that you need to discover how sixty people died on the ship. This game is unique to other games that I have played because it requires a little more thinking. In the game you have a device that can let you go back to when a person on the ship dies and then you are given clues from there. The game is like a murder mystery with many misdirections. It is set in the early 1800’s on a merchant ship called the Obra Dinn which returns to the port years after it was reported to be missing. You as the character are the insurance agent who is in charge of figuring out what happened. When I first started playing the game the clues were pretty helpful in figuring out what was going on, but as I progressed things got more complex and confusing. I am not going to go into everything in the game because I do not want to spoil it, but It was truly engaging and challenging.

In Jenkins’s Game Design as Narrative Architecture, he discusses 5 main topics: spatial stories and environmental storytelling, evocative space, enacted stories, embedded narratives, and emergent narratives. In the section on spatial stories and environmental storytelling, he says “Game designers don’t simply tell stories, they design worlds and sculpt spaces” (Jenkins 4). In Obra Dinn, the game designer does just this. They are sending you to a new world and time period and sculpting a space that makes the gamer feel like a part of that time period. He is able to craft stories with the surrounding environment via clues. He then goes into evocative spaces. He talks about using stories that we are already familiar with to let us explore that space even more. For example a star wars game is only useful because it doesn’t just recap the entire movie, but adds another dimension to the narrative. In Obra Dinn, we can imagine a world on a ship that we have seen in movies and shows and use the narrative to further our understanding of life on a ship. The third concept Jenkins writes about are enacted stories. Jenkins argues that games do not need to me super constructed in its stories, but be multifaceted and allow the player to feel as though they have some sort of choice. In Obra Dinn, I felt as though I was paving my own path at my own pace. It was not a direct narrative. Obra Dinn also has the embedded narratives where there are clues placed throughout the game. Finally, I think the coolest part of a game are emerging narratives. Emerging narratives are interesting because they were not meant to be part of the game. In class we talked about an ARG where people formed different roles than what was expected, but a game that is able to adapt to me is a very sophisticated one in my opinion. In Obra Dinn, I’m not sure if this really occurs but in ARG’s this is very common as we learned.

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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

Video games as semi-ARGs

We have already established the fact that ARGs are different from video games in many aspects. But if we focus individually on the gameplay experience, there are a lot of similarities. One thing that I am intrigued in is the way the creator of a video game/ARG would try to guide the player to a certain goal via clues and hints. And how, ultimately, the choice is the player’s, and some end up deviating from the guidance and end up bringing some spontaneity to the gameplay.

In video games, especially in story-exploration games or point-and-click games, there are always hints to where the player should investigate. The intention is that it avoids the player to just randomly click at things and just find things at random without understanding how the findings connect to the story as a whole. Usually there is a hint bar, which will indicate a place to investigate, or flash at certain places implying the player should look more into it. There are other devices that try to connect or piece the story together for the reader, like the random news articles or journal pages found while exploring, or the weird writing on the wall, the blood-like arrows pointing to certain places. Sometimes, even the character the player plays as, will mention things like “I think I should stay in this area”, or “Going outside is too dangerous right now.” or “This door is jammed. I wonder if a crowbar would work.” All of this are hints to what action or what object the player should take.

In ARGs, we have similar hints. There are moles in ARGs who not only take tabs on the players, but also help them when they are stuck. Unlike video games, the player does not know if an object they are interacting with has anything to do with the ARG at all (in a video game, you can usually pick up important objects, while useless objects are not even able to be clicked upon). Thus, in order to hint at the objects that are important, ARG creators make the objects stand out amongst the enviroment. Like a scrap of paper with writing on it hanging by the branch of a tree; a usb by the toilet; weird photographs on snapchat that should not be there… This calls the player’s attention to objects that are worth investigating. Of course, puzzles work a bit differently in video games and ARGs (this is debatable). For puzzles in video games, they sometimes have a very simple goal, to allow the player to open a door to the basement, or to open a safe to get a pistol. They are very specific in what it leads to, whilst indicating that what they lead to is important (as worth investigating). In ARGs however, the puzzles sometime are used as a catalyst for further questions and puzzles, and the goal of a puzzle may not lead to anywhere. It is more like a bifercating cave, where choosing one path will lead to more bifercations. Sometimes, the puzzle will lead to something, but usually, the something it leads to is not physical–it may lead to a further backstory, another page of a report, or sometimes a location where you are required to find something else (as with the bifercating cave). Even when the puzzle leads to something physical, it is merely more of a symbol than an actual object. Why? because unlike video games, ARGs lack immediate action–video games can create stuff like zombie attacks, which require the player to use a pistol; or locked doors, where the player is required to have a key. Yet for ARGs, alot of the story unfolds in the imagination, and not in reality, and thus we do not require a gun to face off threats or a medkit to heal.

But of course, randomness becomes more of a thing in ARGs, as the players are virtually unchecked in their actions (since this is the real world). And thus there would be some weird but interesting side-plots where the player does not act as the creator intended.

For video games, because the player is restricted to a game, the creator can not only make clues, but also make limitations. Everyone has experienced the “edge of the world” where the player cannot go beyond a certain point, while it seems that there is nothing but an invisible wall blocking the player. The actions of the player is also limited, crouching, shooting (sometimes not allowed, like “Outlast”, running (sometimes not even that), examining objects, walking. But the creators will want the players to explore to their maximum capabilities, and not just follow the guidelines. Thus they put up stuff like easter eggs for the player to discover. However, throughout gaming history, another kind of “breaking out of limitation” was discovered by gamers, and we call that “glitches”, or, more simply. “bugs”. As games, there are always flaws to the production, and thus, not unlike the players in ARGs that choose to “mess up” the ARG by turning to the antagonist’s side (for example), players can break the game sometimes by discovering bugs in the game, like walking through walls, or flying, or crossing over the boundaries (the invisible walls). Compared with the “breaking the rules” actions of ARGs, the bugs discovered by the players are more unique in the fact that they require some very skilled manuevers sometimes, and now it has even become a way of playing the game.

Obra Dinn’s Space

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.

walking games

In reflecting on our reading and the games we played this week, I’m thinking a lot about the role of walking as exploration and the theory of dérive. I’m interesting in putting these ideas together primarily because I wonder if we can think about these two games – and others like it – as a kind of digital, solo dérive.

As Debord notes in the introduction, “Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.” It strikes me that games also involve this kind of psychogeographical awareness, especially in something like Obra Dinn. In the game, the time warp mechanic takes us deeper into the past and the character’s lives, but also changes the way we interact with each space. One thing I experimented with while I was playing was to just keep going farther and farther into the past, passing from one memory into a deeper one, even if the memories were from different chapters of the game. This left me profoundly disoriented in terms of time and location, and made it harder for me to piece together the identities and events I was watching. This also reminds me of the quote that notes that a dérive might be “precisely delimited or vague” depending on the participant’s goal (Debord). Since I took a vague route through this game, it seems like my goal might have been to “emotionally disorient” myself rather than studying the terrain closely.

Playing something like Tacoma or Obra Dinn also speaks to the way that the dérive involves a “letting-go” and a “domination” of space – in some ways, we let the games guide us where to go, but we also make choices about what we want to see next. Both of these games also allow us to experience the content in different orders, depending on what paths and areas we travel to first. Again, I sometimes find this disorienting because I’m faced with so many choices and rooms to explore. In a sense, I’m overwhelmed and have to take a moment to decide where I’ll go next, or I’ll try to make a plan that makes going through the space easy. In Tacoma, I often start in the farthest rooms and work my way back, which is perhaps not how the developers intended the journey to happen. For my play through of Obra Dinn, I started by trying to follow patterns with the bodies, but then I devolved into randomly choosing paths and going as deeply into memories as I could.

Other times, though, I might base my exploration off of the first thing that attracts me, or the first thing made available to me. In Obra Dinn, the tutorial portion leads us to particular bodies, but then we can choose to explore memories from bodies around the same areas. This ties into the quote that states that “the first psychogeographical attractions discovered by dérivers may tend to fixate them around new habitual axes, to which they will constantly be drawn back.” In my first experience of Obra Dinn, I definitely felt more tied to those first bodies, but then my play style made it difficult for me to locate the “firsts” of the next chapters to tie myself to,

I suppose in connecting the these two games with this theory of the dérive, I’m trying to think about the various ways that these experiences turn walking into a game – whether in the “real” or a game space. When we have this expansive spaces to explore coupled with the freedom of choosing what to interact with and in what order, it creates a really fascinating mix of random play and organization/strategy. This strikes me as especially applicable to these two games, which ask us to piece stories together despite sometimes encountering these parts out of order. Though games with walking often get insulted, I do think it’s interesting to gamify our experience of exploration, asking us to look at the world we travel through in new ways.

Works Cited

Debord, Guy-Ernest. “Theory of the Dérive.” http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/314

Mechanics and Story

The opening of “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” describes a tension between narrative and mechanics that I think is common in story-based games. I experienced this tension a bit in “Ask Again Later”: At the end of the game, the storytellers explained some of the thematic and narrative material they intended for the story, in which magic served partially to symbolize repression. And while I enjoyed the LARP a lot, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to experience that thematic material more directly. I imagine more of those themes would have revealed themselves in a long-term version of the LARP, but I also think the format of play limited the storytellers’ ability to convey those kinds of themes as directly because of the need to adapt to our decisions as players. My final project group encountered a similar tension in planning our ARG, as we initially struggled to figure out why, narratively, there would be any need to communicate through puzzles and riddles rather than directly.

To some extent, I think this tension is comparable to other art forms. Across platforms, there are ways in which structure and story can conflict. In a first-person book, for example, the desire to write engaging and compelling prose might conflict with the less polished way a character would actually realistically write. My main creative platform is YouTube, and I’ve encountered similar tensions there. For instance, there have been times when I felt that things like including end screens or asking questions for the comments detracted in theme or pacing from the rest of the video.

I think one way to address this is to try to have structural elements serve doubly as thematic content. For games, this is similar to Bogost’s idea in Persuasive Games of “procedural rhetoric,” in which processes act as a kind of expression. This resonates with the way we used mechanics at the second Queer Game Night, where the game mechanics themselves were also thematic material, such as using “coming out” as an action players could take within the game. I think this kind of procedural expression can also be thought of in relation to derivé or similar kinds of play, in which the meaning comes less from the actual landscape being explored and more from the way it’s being explored, and the process of exploring.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has thoughts on this sort of tension between story, or theme, and mechanics, and on ways to address it.

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.