Get a Clue: Clues and Obra Dinn

Co-group leader and resident anxiety machine Albert Aboaf

“The contradiction? Elementary.” I say, before submitting every possible piece of evidence from the court record in a pathetic attempt to convince Ace Attorney I’ve been paying attention.

The difference between the puzzle of a traditional detective story, and the puzzle of a game floating loosely in that genre, is fundamentally set around the question of the audience’s relationship to the method of solution; the clue. In the traditional form of the puzzling story, the primary work expected of the audience is in interpretation. This is of course, because the story medium doesn’t allow the reader to discover things on their own. You can never truly see the scene of the crime as Holmes does.

Obra Dinn reverses this work. In the case of the gameified version of detection, the audience’s primary work is in that mechanism of discovery. The primary job of the player is to collect the information. Booking everything together and naming the crew is simply the end result of that identification process.

At an abstract level, Obra Dinn breaks its clues into two categories: Ludic clues, and given clues. These categories relate to the way that the information is presented to the player. By ludic, I mean information presented in wholly diegetic ways. This information is not explicitly discretized and given to the player, but is instead observed within the world. In broad strokes, the still sequences and audio presented through the Memento Mortem are examples of ludic clues. It is the job of the player to sort through those sequences to extract meaningful information. On the other hand, the information filled into the log book that the player is able to reference are “given”. This kind of clue exists to contextualize the scene. In a way, these given clues are the scaffolding on which ludic clues are built.

In broad strokes, the form of clues in Obra Dinn can be split between the world as presented in first person to the player, and information as is discretized and presented through the logbook. Ludic clues then, can take any number of more abstract forms. The way one character refers to another, the directions they face, their clothing, and other physical traits are all things that can provide information that is meaningful towards the end goal of identifying the members of the crew. Given clues are information that could not be obtained by mere observation. The player only accesses this information because the game gives it to them. It’s interesting to note that these given clues are necessary to allow for deduction even in the traditional form of the genre. Sherlock Holmes knows the basic details of a crime scene when he walks into it, and similarly the logbook allows the player to know basic details of each scene they observe. There is then a certain level of information that is expected of the game that cannot reasonably be gleaned simply through exploration of the environment. A more explicit example of these givens are in the glossary at the back of the logbook. Because you are asked to step into the role of someone who presumably has an understanding of how a ship’s crew would be organized, there is an expectation that certain information, like what exactly a midshipman is, be provided.

Most of the given clues examined previously are of the type that could sit comfortably in a more traditional representation of the genre as well. There are however forms of given clues that are specific to the gameified version of the genre that Obra Dinn represents. When you’ve gathered enough information to identify a member of the crew, the image of their face will become visible in image. This change in state is itself a clue, as it provides a context for the information that’s already been gathered, drastically narrowing down the total number of possibilities. This information set is an artifact of the need to par down the amount of information that the player and audience can reasonably be expected to deal with.

As a personal aside, I think that it’s interesting that, given how easily accessible information like the sort provided in the glossary is, it would be possible to create a solvable deduction based game that lacks context clues. It certainly wouldn’t be fun to constantly cross reference the internet to find relevant information, but it would be interesting.

The clues in Obra Dinn also serve a very strong narrative purpose. Piecing together the circumstances of death for each person aboard the ship in turn pieces together the larger narrative of the events that occurred on and to the ship itself. The player is never taken aside and explained at, the progression of the narrative is instead a product and function of the core gameplay loop.

By offloading the detective work onto the audience, or in this case the player, Obra Dinn is also able to unload a majority of the fluffwork that occurs in more traditional forms of the genre. Obra Dinn doesn’t need an extraordinary Sherlock figure to create intrigue because it has the time and space it needs to create a compelling history for each of the sixty people on board. This is true in terms of the larger narrative as well. Each time the player puts a name and cause of death to a face, they take another step towards answering the question of what exactly happened on the Obra Dinn.

I’d like to turn a bit towards the readings. Much of the above abstraction is hinged lovingly on Haycraft’s Rules of the Game, namely in how the shift in medium applies to them. The systems of Obra Dinn ask the player to step into the role of the deductive protagonist, and by extension give the audience access to precisely the information set that is typically only accessible to actors within the fictional world of the case. This also necessarily changes the way that clues are revealed. The traditional detective, abiding by the rules, can only present information that is in some way relevant to the problem of the story. Rodell says that “a good clue, then, is one which does in fact point in the right direction, but which seems at first to point in the wrong direction.” This misdirection happens because the audience’s interpretation of the clue is very heavily a product of the musings and deductions of the actors in the worldspace of the fiction. Without the ability to personally check against the scene, those deductions and assumptions become fact.

By giving the player access to the environment, this concept of a good clue isn’t entirely removed, but is instead slightly twisted. Misdirection isn’t applied through mal-deduction, but through the fact that the person who now sits in the deductive role probably doesn’t solve crimes for a living. In Obra Dinn, as has been stated, there is now the additional work of determining what information is meaningful, ergo a clue, and what information isn’t. In this case, the good clue is one that is hidden comfortably alongside other deductive noise.

As a final, tangential name drop (and space filler), I’d like to offer an opinion, that the form of clues in an interactive space is what allows the interactive, gameified version of the genre to transcend other traditional forms. Callois’ conception of the detective story as a game is harried by the fact of the distance traditional mediums put between their audience and their worlds. The clue is, in the traditional medium, a function of the cleverness of the plot. It is a challenge and puzzle to the reader, sure, but the readers job is not to deduce the solution to the case, but to try and put together the deductions presented by the plot before having it revealed to them. Obra Dinn reverses this. The player is the intellectual foundation of Obra Dinn, and the source from which clues and information stem. The traditional form of work purported by the detective story still exists, but it is layered on top of another subset of puzzling labor. While the reader is given the information they need to solve the case, the player is asked to first find the relevant clues on their own, and then piece those clues together.

To come back to the original topic, the function of clues in Obra Dinn is the same as any other form of the deductive narrative. Clues exist to piece together other forms of information, either a final conclusion or another clue. What is interesting then, is the form that clues take in Obra Dinn. Rather than points of intrigued marked by a third party, be it detective or say a button prompt, they take the form of physical information that the player must observe, sense, and interpret, taking on the role of the deductive protagonist who searches for information rather than backseating a godlike deductive figure a la Sherlock Holmes.

Final unrelated point, it was very clever of Lucas Pope to make us work in threes. Made it significantly harder for me to just guess things and I really didn’t appreciate it.

I hope next Lucas Pope makes a game where you have to do taxes.

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