Return of the Obra Dinn Commentary and Critique

The slow march of my video series on detective games continues with this, its fifth entry. For awhile I was afraid there was no reason to do this one, as I wouldn’t be able to top my students’ posts and videos on this game after I taught it last spring. In the end, I went with sheer length as my own particular angle.

Script below the jump.

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Rediscovering Mystery: How Return of the Obra Dinn’s aesthetic sends players back in time

by Tyler Araujo

Return of the Obra Dinn was the most fun I’ve had doing a “required reading” throughout my entire career as a student, and I’m not ashamed to say I’ve returned to complete it since playing the portion I was able to complete before class. The game was released by independent game developer Lucas Pope in 2018, and went on to win Best Indie Game at the 2018 Titanium Awards. The game also received a well-deserved accolade for Best Art Direction at the 2018 game awards. In Return of the Obra Dinn, players are tasked with uncovering the mystery of a ship which came into port with all 60 people who set sail on it either dead or missing. Using a “Memento Mortem” which allows to view still scenes which preceded each crew member’s murder, your task is to explore the dense crime scenes past and discover exactly what became of every single person on the vessel.

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The Looking Theme in A Case of Identity and Return of the Obra Dinn

Group project video essay, created by leader Haoru Wang

I used walkthroughs and Let’s Play footage in this video essay, because I haven’t upgrade my Laptop, and it won’t allow me to use iMovie to edit the video. I had to use iPad for editing, and here’s my reference list:

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The Revolutionary Power of Clues in Return of the Obra Dinn

Group project video essay and summary blog post, created/written by co-leader Kellie Lu

Warning: contains spoilers.

Return of the Obra Dinn is a distillation of the mystery genre that manages to make a player a true detective while adding its own intimate flair. Unlike many detective games that give the player god-like powers or modes to highlight clues and select the correct choice from a pre-written plot, the player must investigate environments without hand-holding. And it does this well. Many players comment on the way that the game makes them feel empowered, and this is the key to which Obra Dinn revolutionizes the mystery game genre.

How does the game do this? Roger Caillois states that the pleasure of reading a mystery novel is “not that of listening to a story, but rather that of watching a “magic” trick which the magician immediately explains. The author has set everything up in advance. The story opens on a rigged set; we do not even see the main event, but only its disturbing consequences” (4).

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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.

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Interesting Games of 2018: A Belated Wrap-Up

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I fell behind on 2018 games thanks to my “Let’s Study Horror Games” series. Things kind of worked out in the end, though, because 2018 ended up being not quite as supersaturated with games as 2017. To be sure, it was a year of big releases, both on the mainstream AAA front and on the indie front. But it didn’t have the sheer firehose volume of 2017.

Since my mid-year post handled January through June, I was originally intending this post to mostly cover games that came out from July 1st onward. It turned out there were plenty of stragglers I missed in the previous post, so that organizational scheme ended up going out the window. A jumble of things below the jump.

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Games of the Decade: Stakes

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It has become a set of dual clichés: in videogames, you either save the princess, or you save the world. Those are the only sets of storytelling stakes offered. The only things that can imbue our actions with importance is to tie our success or failure to the fate of humankind, or the fate of a particular monarchic lineage.

Which is, frankly, alarmingly dumb. By way of contrast, here are some of the resolutions of the great works of cinema: A boy loses respect for his father after the father resorts to thievery. A group of reporters trying to decipher a newspaper tycoon’s last words ponder whether it’s truly possible to know and understand another person. A man and his dying wife are struck by the kindness of their widowed daughter-in-law. The fate of the world does not hang in the balance in any of these scenarios. The stakes in play are emotional, familial, and cultural.

So, whenever a game comes along that gives you a different motivation for caring about its central conflict, that is something to be savored and celebrated. The games listed here all roundly reject tired “save the princess/save the world” narrative stakes. Instead, they offer up goals, character motivations, and resoultions that are more personal, more intimate, or more philosophical. There is, if it can be said, much more at stake in these games than the fate of the world.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: In the Shadow of Papers, Please

westport_independent-screenshot-01
The Westport Independent (Double Zero One Zero, 2016)

Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to its completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that strike the same notes? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

In this entry, I turn not to one game, but to a whole slew of them. Particularly, I will be looking at games that have popped up in the wake of Lucas Pope’s lauded Papers, Please (3909, 2013), which I considered earlier in the series, here.

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The Process Genre in Videogames: Papers, Please

papers_please-screenshot-01

Ian here—

This post is part of a series that borrows the term process genre from Salomé Aguilera Skvirsky’s work in cinema studies, and explores its utility for videogame analysis. A quick definition: “process genre” films are films about labor, films that focus on processes of doing and making, that are fascinated with seeing tasks through to their completion. They are deliberately paced, meditative, and often political, in that they cast a penetrating eye on labor conditions. Are there games that the same chords? Posts in the series so far can be seen here.

On the docket for today: Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please (3909, 2013), a simulation of being a border guard in the fictional Soviet-bloc-style nation of Arstotzka in 1982. As you scrutinize people’s documents, weeding out the undesirables, stamping the passports of some travelers and detaining others, there is plenty of opportunity for political drama—in particular, do you do your best as a servant of your obviously oppressive government, or do you quietly aid rebel factions? But there’s also just the matter of making enough money to keep your house heated, your son fed, and getting medication for your elderly uncle. Since you’re paid by the number of entrants you correctly service, this means being good at your job: memorizing the bureaucratic rules, getting good at both quickly and carefully examining documents, and keeping your desk clean and orderly. It is, all things considered, as much a game about a desk as it is about a family, or a nation.

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