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  • Writer's pictureSamantha Cross

Archives in Video Games: Return of the Obra Dinn

Well, I've obviously had pirates and the high seas on my mind and while I was writing about Our Flag Means Death I remembered that there was a video game in which a logbook functions as an archival record. That game is, in case you didn't read the title, Return of the Obra Dinn. Created by Lucas Pope and published by 3909 LLC, Return of the Obra Dinn is a 2018 puzzle-solving game in which the player is tasked with recreating the events of the Obra Dinn's voyage and determining the fates of the crew.

Within the lore of the game, the ship set out on a voyage from England to the Far East in 1802 with a crew of 51 and 9 passengers but never made it to its rendezvous at the Cape of Good Hope. Declared missing, the Obra Dinn mysteriously returns off the coast of England five years later with the entire crew either missing or dead. The player represents an Inspector of the East India Company, insurer of the Obra Dinn, who boards the ship in order to perform an appraisal and create a final record of the ship's voyage. Prior to boarding, the player was sent a logbook and the Memento Mortem stopwatch from the ship's surgeon to aid in their investigation. The logbook contains a crew and passenger manifest, drawings, and diagrams of the Obra Dinn's decks, which the player uses to determine the names of the crew member/passenger and their ending in conjunction with the past events displayed by the stopwatch.

Once again, the logbook is the most important item within the narrative. Yes, the mechanics of the stopwatch are fantastic and a brilliant combination of 1-bit graphics and 3D space, but observing the stunning and otherworldly circumstances that unfold means nothing without the ability to organize it properly. In his review for Return of the Obra Dinn for Rock Paper Shotgun, Alex Wiltshire recounted an exchange between Lucas Pope and his friend who did a playtest of the game. Said the friend, "This game is about the book."

He wasn't wrong.

Obra Dinn logbook

The logbook is the primary user interface and the most stable point of contact in the game. It represents not just the player's progress but, within the narrative of the game, the final record of the Obra Dinn. That doesn't mean that assembling the record goes smoothly, or within a linear timeline. It isn't obvious at first, but the player catches on quickly that the chapters appearing in the book are told out of order, which adds to the complexity of establishing the identities and whereabouts of the crew on the ship and observing where they appear within the frozen moments caught by the stopwatch. There are also dialogue-laden "cut scenes" that play before chapters that offer up names, relationships, ranks, and Foley that potentially helps the Inspector in the decision-making process. This was, according to Pope, the deliberate function of the logbook, something the player could flip through that eventually accumulates into a timeline.

Assembling the final record is very reminiscent of the work archivists carry out on large collections. You don't necessarily have the benefit of an established chronological order, so you find yourself creating a narrative out of what's available, which is further solidified in the finding aid or institutional database. Unlike the Inspector, archivists don't have a magical stopwatch that can take them back to a specific moment in time. Don't get me wrong, we'd love one of those and if anyone makes a Memento Mortem please only tell archivists about it and no one else. So, sans magical stopwatch, archivists have to rely on the documents and artifacts in their possession, research, and the ability to ascertain events and fill in the gaps where needed.

If you take out the stopwatch mechanic in the game, it's easy to imagine the Inspector making notes in the logbook, scratching out names, or outlining the movements of the crew along the various decks. And it's easy to imagine that because it's essentially what you're doing in the logbook as part of the user interface. The Memento Mortem can only establish a particular moment in the story. Yes, you can move around and find more clues, but beyond those moments it's up to the player to make decisions and suss out the timeline within the logbook. In some ways the logbook also functions as a living document, changing over the course of the game as new information comes to light.

The only unrealistic part of the game, from an archival point-of-view, is you actually complete the record, wrapping up the Obra Dinn's doomed voyage with a nice neat bow and a monkey's paw to boot. Not every archivist gets the satisfaction of a wholly complete record, so savor that moment when it happens.

Also, maybe get rid of the monkey's paw. Nothing good can come of that.

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