The Literary Heritage of Sunless Sea at Kill Screen

sunless sea
My summer composition course focused on nautical narratives and nostalgia. As part of the final unit, my students encountered a variety of narratives from non-textual media, and the videogame Sunless Sea really seemed to capture their imaginations. Many of them chose to focus on the game for their final projects. Here’s an article that I wrote for Kill Screen on how Sunless Sea draws on its literary heritage to offer a compelling vision of sea narratives.

Read the article at Kill Screen.

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.

Spoiler Alert: A Conference Tale

Walking Dead hug

An odd thing happened at the Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies (INCS, pronounced “inks”) conference that I attended last week: in the middle of Q & A, I demanded that a participant stop talking.

To be honest, it was a moment of panic. I was worried that this participant, one Roger Whitson, was going to reveal details about the second season of TellTale Games’ The Walking Dead. Never before in my professional life has the possibility of plot spoilers worried me so much.

Once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

See, in Victorian or nineteenth-century studies, I’ve always assumed that spoilers sort of go with the territory. There’s no way any one person, especially an early career academic like me, can have read everything, and attending panels and reading papers inevitably results in a few plot spoilers here and there. In other words, once you enter literary study as a profession, you’ve given up the right to complain about having the ending of a book revealed.

It may sound silly, but I think that recognizing this reality was one of the more difficult moments I experienced as a graduate student. Rather than relishing the delightful mystery that was each new book I read growing up, literary scholarship can become, in some cases, an exercise in reading for an ending that I already know is coming. At times, I must admit, knowing the ending had the unanticipated effect of enhancing the experience, as in my recent reading of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. I was aware (and I suppose now would be a good time to point out the spoilers are imminent) prior to beginning the novel, that Maggie and Tom were doomed. In a way, I found myself relishing the moments of their relationship, always with that sense that this was a familial relationship destined to end tragically.

The Walking Dead's cast of characters

The Walking Dead’s cast of characters

Spoiler Alerts and the Digital Humanities

I think we can all remember a moment when a narrative was spoiled for us–how we so wish we could go back and cover our ears, or at least forget what we heard. While now it may seem trivial considering the direction M. Night Shyamalan’s career has taken, when I was in high school friend inadvertentlyrevealed The Sixth Sense‘s ending. To this day I can feel that sense of being cheated.

I hope that my work will inspire others to pursue their own encounters with videogames, stories, and novels

Years later, some of my recent research has led me to explore the intersections of Victorian psychological theory and videogame narratives. And now, all of the sudden, I feel as if I have a professional responsibility to offer spoiler alert warnings. Because the digital narratives of videogames are more recent, I want people to be able to experience the pleasure of pursuing the story on their own. At the same time, feeling the need to constantly offer warnings about potential spoilers can seriously hamper the flow of conversation and debate.

In the case of my conference presentation, I actively prohibited a contributor from making a point using an example that I had not yet had the chance to enjoy. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut, but in an academic community where having narratives spoiled goes with the territory, it was a welcome change of pace to have a legitimate reason for arresting a line of discussion that might have revealed narrative details that I still would like to relish free from prior knowledge.

As a Victorian scholar, digital humanities offers a unique connection to the present that is exemplified by this particular (and admittedly minor) conference experience. Of course, academic work in Victorian literature has regularly traced significant movements through to the present. But the issue of spoilers, which seems to have been exacerbated by digital media (many of us have seen “I haven’t seen the new Game of Thrones yet!” posts on Facebook). In the end, I hope that my work on digital narrative will both inform and inspire others to pursue their own encounters with the videogames, stories, and novels I have studied.

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?