Exploring the Obra Dinn, a 19th-century Ship

The style of authenticity almost suggests that the Obra Dinn was an actual ship lost in the early 19th century.

Nothing pleases me more than when I get to write about video games that overlap with my interest in nineteenth-century literature. Just last week Lucas Pope, who also created the game Papers, Please, released an early development build of his new project, Return of the Obra Dinn. As you can see from the promotional poster for the game, it is set in the early years of the nineteenth century and concerns the ship, Obra Dinn, which was lost at sea in 1803.

By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.

Simulating Age in Video Games and Poetry

The game is still in its earliest stages, but in this development build players can explore the Obra Dinn, which has mysteriously returned after having been lost at sea. Pope has opted to present the game in a style reminiscent of old grayscale video games, like those available on the original Game Boy. The only difference, is that this game provides a three dimensional vessel that the player can explore; in a way, then, the game marries an older style with contemporary technology, drawing upon the evolution of video games as a medium to suggest the age of the vessel within the narrative. It strikes me that this approach is suggestive of the style in which Coleridge first wrote The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere (as the title was originally written); Coleridge gave the poem a sense of age by spelling many of the words in the poem in a way suggestive of Chaucer’s Middle English. The poem was later revised to more contemporary spellings, but I always appreciated the effect of Coleridge’s original text, because it does give the poem a sense of age and permanence.

As it is now, Return of the Obra Dinn tasks players with deducing the fates of every person on board the ship, most of whom, it seems, have either died on board or been cast into the sea. Even with only the snippet of the game that is presented here, I’m excited to continue exploring the Obra Dinn. The game seems to capture many elements of neo-Victorian narratives, but presents them in a way that is uniquely suited to an interactive medium. The dotted shading alone almost necessitates a familiarity with the history of video games to be effective, since the sense of age that it conveys will be more palpable to those who recognize its gesture to the medium’s past.

"Dublin Bay." (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

“Dublin Bay.” (1853) Edwin Hayes, National Gallery of Ireland. via Wikimedia Commons

Students as Digital Investigators

Depending on how the game develops, this would be a great addition to a class on sea literature in the nineteenth century. Students could play Obra Dinn alongside Michel Maxwell Philip’s Emmanuel Appadocca, or, Blighted Life: A Tale of the Boucaneers (1854), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883), or William Clark Russell’s The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877). In many ways, then, the presentation of the centuries old Obra Dinn could be read through the tradition of sea literature that developed during the nineteenth century. By putting the player in the role of historian and investigator, Return of the Obra Dinn could provide a foundation for students to think about digital research and the interpretation of evidence.

Of course, Pope’s project is still a work in progress; so we will have to wait and see how it develops toward its final publication. But at the very least, I’m impressed by how much potential is in this very short demonstration.

Technology and Memory, or, Memory Technology

A tower of used books

What to make of Memory

The course I’m teaching this semester, “Narrating Criminal Memory in Literature and Culture,” examines narratives of criminal memory, or narratives that relate the story of a crime, often from the perspective of the perpetrator. As a result of this focus, I have been thinking quite a bit about how we gather evidence in criminal cases, and in light of the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, what constitutes evidence of a crime has become even more important. Today, we often think of how technology is used as a kind of crutch for our memories, as a support system that can be used to correct, supplement, or even supplant our recollections. Of course, even the presence of such technology does not guarantee consensus. As a result, the relationship between memory and technology becomes crucial, especially since our lives are increasingly mediated by devices that are designed to record our experiences for us, whether through video, photography, or sound recording.

Georgia Tech has asked its incoming students to read Ted Chiang’s short story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction,” which imagines a future that is completely dominated by a product (Remem) that combines the recording capabilities of headset cameras like Google Glass with the search functionality of Google’s Gmail client. In other words, Chiang asks his readers to consider the possibility that video records would become so pervasive and so easily searchable that our own memories would begin to alter. He also raises the specter of tampering and the implications for us if video records were altered in some way. In discussing this story with my students, I found that they were eager to consider the ways in which technology impacts our memory–questions that will continue to resonate in the course as a whole.


Of course, studies have already shown that technology is influencing the way that we remember. In 2011 a group of researchers posited a kind of memory called “transactive” memory. In essence, the authors of the study found that people with near constant access to the Internet and its search capabilities have changed their memories away from storing specific information. Instead, our minds recall where to go to find information, rather than the information itself. In other words, we remember “wikipedia” or “IMDb” much more easily than specific details about a historical event or movie. (The abstract for that study can be found here.) Yet these discussions only highlight the fact that “technology,” although often conceived of in terms of contemporary gadgets and computers, encompasses much that we now consider non-technological, like books.

What Counts as Technology

Last week, I read a delightful article that to me was a kind of ode to the book in prose. In his discussion, the author, Craig Mod, offers a wonderful picture of the fact that books are very much a technology. Although we rarely think of them in that way, books remain a highly advanced form of information storage, organization, and retrieval. Indeed, I remember the first time that I saw someone bring a Kindle to a reading group discussion. The rest of us had purchased physical copies of the text, but this participant was taking advantage of his new technology. While we all quickly turned to a specific page, he leaned over and glanced for a scrap of text that he could then type into the search box. As he was waiting for his Kindle to catch up to us, a wry emeritus professor of history quipped, “This is codex technology,” referring to our books, “and that is scroll technology,” pointing to the Kindle. We all laughed, but his point couldn’t have been clearer–not all technology improves upon what we already have.

origins english novelOf course, e-readers will improve (and have), but if memory and technology are so seemingly intertwined now, they must also have seemed so when books were the cutting edge of technological progress. Indeed, Michael McKeon points out in The Origins of the English Novel that the introduction of written records into legal discourse was specifically designed to provide a more reliable form of record-keeping than memory. Perhaps our relationship with technology and memory is always vexed; one moment we are highly suspicious of the changes that technology will bring, the next we are hailing the newest invention as the hallmark of a new era. In either case, it seems clear that human history and culture is not one of memory and technology, but one of memory technology. Each has been influenced by the other, to the point that our memories and our technologies are perhaps so interdependent that it would be difficult to extract one from the other.

Class Warfare: Videogame Classes, Narrative, and Choice 1

I Heart Class Warfare - Occupy Wall Street Protest - 8 Oct 2011 - Zuccotti Park - NYC - USA - BlackBerry Photo

Class Warfare in action

Inspired by the recent call for papers of the North American Victorian Studies Association, which asks for research examining “classes and classification,” I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the notion of classes is enacted in videogame narratives. Recently, a friend of mine who has not played videogames in several years decided to try Skyrim, and while the idea is familiar to longtime fans of the Elder Scrolls series, he was impressed by the fact that the game does not force you to choose a class at the very beginning. Unlike many other RPGs and MMOs, in which a player’s class significantly influences (and often restricts) his or her choices throughout the game, Skyrim’s model allows the player’s actions to determine their strengths and weaknesses.

Class Selection and Narrative Limitation

In many ways, classes have become one of the most common staples of videogames, not only because they were prominent in pen-and-paper RPGs, but also because they offer a convenient way to structure narrative. Take, for example, Star Wars The Old Republic, an MMO that sold itself as a game that would reintroduce narrative as a central component to online gaming. While my experiences playing TOR were satisfactory, there were always those red, translucent barriers blocking doorways in certain buildings. Beyond those barriers were portions of the game limited to players of other classes; and while it makes sense that the game would create these kinds of sectioned areas to funnel players of the correct class into the correct areas, it was suggestive of a limitation.

Mary Barton

What if this had been an early attempt at choose your own adventure?

It was as if Elizabeth Gaskell required her readers to decide, before beginning to read Mary Barton, whether they wanted to enjoy a novel critiquing the crippling inequity in industrial Britain, a murder mystery, or a love triangle between a girl and two young men (a la The Notebook: one wealthy, another her childhood (but poorer) friend (yes, I know, I just compared Elizabeth Gaskell to Nicholas Sparks)). What if, depending on the reader’s choice, certain portions of the novel would then be sealed, unless you agreed to go back to the beginning and start again, this time with a different choice?

Lisa Dusenberry, a friend and colleague who is a Marion L. Brittain Fellow at Georgia Tech, has developed the concept of a “reader-player” to describe participants in and consumers of children’s literature that isn’t “restricted to a single medium, single source text, and/or a single method of reader interaction” [1]. Her term is useful because it aptly suggests that players experience the narratives of videogames across a variety of media. At the same time, the close connection between reading and playing only exacerbates the disconnect that a videogame creates when particular avenues of narrative exploration are deliberately closed to the player. Of course, many (if not all) videogames are designed around the notion that the player might not experience all of the content on their first playthrough. As early as Super Mario Bros., secret tricks and areas offered new exploratory and (minimally) narrative possibilities. But the best games offer these alternatives in a way that doesn’t impress upon the player that their experience is somehow incomplete.

Choose your class...there's no going back

Choose your class…there’s no going back

The Possibility of (Illusory) Narrative Freedom

Yet with the class selection systems of many games, the game makes it only too clear that your choices will place you into a particular category from which you are rarely allowed to deviate. This argument has been raised recently with the changes between the skill trees in Diablo II and Diablo III; where Diablo II locked players into their choices, Diablo III has allowed more freedom and customization. Opinions on this change vary, but even Diablo III’s options exist under the aegis of a class choice; you may be able to change your character’s abilities, but that character is still limited to being a barbarian, monk, or wizard. The necessity of this choice suggests a longtime difficult with videogames: are they primarily a narrative medium or something more fundamental. As in chess, it seems silly to expect that all the pieces (or characters) could have the same movement (or class) options. So how should videogames negotiate their narrative and gaming aspects in the context of class choice?

The word “class” is itself fraught with all kinds of social, cultural, and political baggage. And while it may seem that the term is somehow shed of these undertones in the context of videogames, I would suggest that in many ways character classes create systems of inequity that have ramifications for how a videogame’s world is presented to players. I was an early purchaser of the first Guild Wars in 2005, and the game appealed to me initially because it had a strong narrative component. Indeed, the entire game world was dramatically altered between the introductory quests and the bulk of the game. But what was fascinating about the way that the class system in that game impacted my experience as a player focused on the Guild War’s heavy reliance on an instanced mission system. In these missions, up to six players could team up to tackle a particular part of the game’s narrative campaign, but in many of the cities, which served as hubs where players could meet up with and join other groups, a resounding refrain continually graced the community chat window. “GLF Monk!!!” In Guild Wars, monks were the healer class, and for whatever reason the game’s player economy, in those early days, was largely bereft of a sufficient number of monks. Especially in more difficult missions, where a healer was essential, an inability to find a monk could dash a group’s hopes of completing the narrative.

Between Star Wars The Old Republic and Guild Wars, it becomes clear how much power character classes can wield over a players experience of a narrative. Obvious restrictions on content based on an initial (and somewhat contextless) class decision fostered a conflictedness within the player. Ignorance may be bliss, but obligatory ignorance often grates, particularly in a narrative medium that often revels in possibility. “Class warfare” suggests the inner-turmoil that players experience as they realize how a game’s narrative is restricted, but it also can point to how particular classes become more or less valued within the game’s social economy. So how might games arrive at a possibility of creating different kinds of experiences for players without relying on classes as a restrictive narrative method?

A game that navigates these difficulties quite well in the single-player realm is The Cave. While players are required to choose only three of the eight initial characters available, the narrative seamlessly weaves the stories of your chosen characters together. Additionally, The Cave, while labeling the characters in a way reminiscent of a class structure, invests their characters with a sense of being that extends beyond their labels. Returning to my friend’s first impressions of Skyrim, I was impressed by his exuberant realization that the game in no way forced him to choose a certain class of character. And perhaps games that eschew classes and classification actually proffer a greater sense of narrative immersion and possibility to their players. On the other hand, in games where class selection are an essential part of the game design, perhaps developers can look to The Cave as a prototype of the kind of game that effectively masks the narrative limitations that class selection necessitates. [2]

[1] Dusenberry, Lisa. “Reader-Players: The 39 Clues, Cathy’s Book, and the Nintendo DS.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 35.4 (2010): 443-49.

[2] Reader’s might note that this article seems to posit a conflict between online and single-player videogames. While I agree that my examples do fall along those lines, I would suggest that there is nothing inherent in online games that requires them to adopt a class structure. While it was a commercial failure, Cyan’s short-lived Uru experimented with an online world in which players were not assigned any kind of class limitation.

Long Voyages, or, Venice Bound

In three days, I’ll be getting on a plane for Europe–my first international trip. Like anyone any my position would probably do, I’ve read a lot of articles on the Internet about travelling to Europe, which at times caused more confusion than clarity. But my research was made simpler by the fact that I won’t be galavanting across the continent, unlike many travelers who barely touch their feet to the ground in one city before dashing off to the next. In fact, I’ll be spending the whole of my 10 days in one place: Venice.

San Servolo and Venice International University

San Servolo and Venice International University

I am participating in the supernumerary conference of the three major Victorian studies associations (North American Victorian Studies Association, British Association of Victorian Studies, and the Australasian Victorian Studies Association). The first week will consist of a professionalization workshop for graduate students, followed by the conference itself. Our venue is the (apparently) lovely campus of Venice International University, on the island of San Servolo, quite near to Venice itself. I hope to be posting updates about the conference and the experience overall, but my resolve on this question might wane in the midst of jet-lag and walking (swimming?) about the city.

In addition to the workshop, I’ll be presenting a small portion of one of my dissertation chapters (on Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton) as well as moderating a panel on “Ships and the Sea.” I’m particularly excited about the panel on nautical literature, because it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but haven’t been able to pursue professionally (beyond being very excited for the Moby-Dick card game kickstarter). And what a better place to talk about ships and the sea than in Venice?

Newgate Fiction and the Panic of Video Game Violence

Jack_sheppardLast week, Kotaku posted a critique of the use of scare tactics to represent video games in a recent episode of Katie Couric’s new show. The post included video from Couric’s show that featured dark, shadowy images of young men playing fiercely with controllers while a deep, gravelly voice-over described the dangers of video games to children everywhere. While I don’t necessarily think that video game proponents should adopt a reactionary or overly defensive position with respect to the question of representations of violence in video games, it does seem that popular airings of this debate slant toward sensationalizing what is really just a general sense of unease related to video games. As it often is with such programs on video games, the presenters and commentators rarely seem to have played video games on their own. In fact, the criticism is often a criticism of distance–of looking at something askance as much for its unfamiliarity as anything else.

Particularly telling was Couric’s exchange with Jim Steyer, who lamented the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchant’s Association to affirm the protection of video games as free speech (PDF of ruling). Indeed, Couric takes a moment to quote from the majority decision, which points out that “the books we give children to read–or read to them when they are younger–contain no shortage of gore. […] As her just deserts for trying to poison Snow White, the wicked queen is made to dance in red hot slippers ’til she fell dead on the floor'” (8). Streyer’s response to this argument is simply to say that the justices were wrong to make a comparison between literary depictions of violence and those in video games.

I would not want to go so far as to suggest that representations of violence in literature and video games are precisely equivalent, but I was intrigued by this question about the effect of violence in video games, paired as it was with the dismissal of any suggestion that violent literature could be dangerous. In the aftermath of television, film, and video games, the notion of literature as a dangerous form of entertainment may seem a little ridiculous (despite the annual lists of banned books that circulate the Internet), but of course, this was not always the case. Indeed, the recent renewed focus on video games brings to mind the controversy that rose around a subgenre of adventure novels that appeared in England in the 1830s; they were known as Newgate novels after the famous Newgate prison in London. The novels took as their subject the lives and exploits of famous criminals, some historical, others fictional. The books were wildly popular until the high-profile murder of Lord William Russell in 1840 essentially killed the entire genre.

Russell was murdered by his valet, Fran├žois Courvoisier, who went to great effort to make the murder look like a robbery gone wrong. It was soon reported that Courvoisier had been reading William Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839), which was one of the most popular and widely read of the Newgate novels. The novel’s eponymous hero was an actual eighteenth-century criminal, and Ainsworth’s apparent glorification of Sheppard’s criminal successes was denounced by many reviewers. But these concerns were exacerbated when, during the inquest into Lord Russell’s death, Courvoisier testified that reading Jack Sheppard had given him the idea of murdering his master. Much of the popularity of Jack Sheppard wasn’t due to the novel alone, however; Ainsworth’s rendition of Sheppard’s life inspired many stage adaptations, which were themselves quite popular. But in the aftermath of the association between Courvoisier’s crime and the fictional representation of a life of crime, the Lord Chamberlain essentially banned all plays based on Jack Sheppard or similar material. While the Chamberlain’s office was tasked with approving theatrical productions, because Courvoisier’s testimony suggested a clear connection between the representations of violence in Newgate fiction and an actual act of murder, the censorship office essentially stamped out the genre.

Of course, the parallels between representations of violence in Newgate novels and in video games are palpable in the history of Newgate fiction. In England, a mechanism for restricting and removing objectionable material was already in place and made the censorship of Newgate fiction relatively easy and immediate, but we are fortunate that such a mechanism is not present in twenty-first-century America. While the conversation about the impact of representations of violence will (and should) continue, we should keep in mind that novel ways of representing (or glorifying) violence are not uncommon. Banning or restricting access to creative works has a dubious history at best, and a longer historical view of such debates would be a welcome addition to the discussions surrounding video games. As it is, though, the divisive rhetoric that characterizes much of political and cultural life these days seems to be mirrored in the video game debate. I would hope that proponents of restricting video games would think twice before trying to establish a contemporary censorship office on the grounds that such restrictions will prevent tomorrow’s tragedy.

Sources: William Harrison Ainsworth, Jack Sheppard. Eds. Edward Jacobs and Manuela Mourao. Broadview, 2007.
Jan-Melissa Schramm, Atonement and Self-Sacrifice in Nineteenth-Century Narrative. Cambridge UP, 2012.