Return of the Obra Dinn really overestimates how much I’m willing to sympathise with a member of the East India Company.
It puts the bar pretty high, while it should be left lying on the ground, along with any interest I’ve got in stories about ancient, evil conjuring magical secrets possessed by East Asian characters (as told by a guy successful for writing immigration officer apologia and silly names for former Soviet states). The amount of tact or insight into the historical conditions of the USSR present in Papers, Please is about the same level of narrative originality or history present aboard the Obra Dinn. That is none. Zero.
It’s 1807 when I board the ship as Chief Inspector for The Honourable East India Company, where there’s all these murders I have to use my super neat spooky pocket-watch to solve. Aww Coool! 1807, the year the British government stopped the trading of human slaves (a ban that would take 26 years to reach its colonies of course), which is a thing for which there is no mention in this game set on the ocean, amongst seafarers. If you didn’t know that date’s significance already the ‘historical’ setting wouldn’t let you know any of it. Amongst the entire crew of the Obra Dinn, in their circumstances of arrival there, none of them seem to have any concern for where they are, nor who they are, no interior or exterior history related to the world.
How did my own character, the Chief Insurance Inspector for the East India Trading Company no less, achieve their position? What benefits to their life were there from slavery and the total resultant human destruction? From all imperial abuse? Are they happy with their situation? Sad? What the fuck am I meant to do as an employee of one of the most corrupt and destructive white supremacist companies in world history, in a story that doesn’t even mention this history? You are put on a historicised cargo boat with a cast of characters from all over the world entirely stripped of the truths of themselves, whose situations and reasons for being in the employ or taking passage with the company are cursory, and who become pawns in a romanticised play acting of what we might assume these kinds of people would do.
Yes haha, of course there’s the classically evil posh English villains who will frame, murder and coerce the foreign guests and the entire crew of their ship. Then all the white people on the ship will go crazy for a mystical magical secret thing, the thing that the people of colour know to leave well alone.
All the steps taken for the sake of telling this kind of overdone story without gross misrepresentation and blatant caricature are objectively good. The fact that there is a crew who are historically accurate to the diversity of nationality on ships, and that in the flashbacks the game is made up of, non-British characters speak with their own language, and are played by actors of descent. That’s great, well done. However, that’s it, and this representation and accuracy is the bare minimum anyone should expect. What is the point of having this dedication when the game still hugely caricatures the people of Formosa, the Portuguese Imperial name for Taiwan, as being connected to an ancient magical artefact they carry, in a way that is so Orientalist it’s weird to see in contemporary fiction? It’s like all millennial podcaster’s ‘favourite 80s films’, but without the winks to the audience even, no understanding of their own racist caricature, instead taking it all as seriously as the origins of the trope, in mystery and adventure fiction dating back to racist Victorians.
The closest thing in recent popular fiction to the Obra Dinn is likely The Terror by Dan Simmons, a book and TV adaptation I enjoyed when I wasn’t really thinking about what it was doing, but which is so easy to critique as also feeding the dehumanising settler image of noble, supernatural and (in its case) hypersexual indigenous people. Which is just…
That text however has at its core a contempt for itself, for British explorers and the mission it depicts, it is infected with a terror that takes the form of the indigenous people’s fury (as depicted from a white writer’s point of view), and gets put therefore in the UGLY class of white literature that attempts to redeem colonising figures by having them saved from themselves by indigenous people.
Return of the Obra Dinn hardly even gets there, not even to the first stumbling block of white Anglophile writing about people who experienced the human horror of European empires and their legacies. While the Formosan passengers did warn ‘Don’t open the box!’, the implications of any actual history or responsibility on the part of the East India Company, their Chief Inspector, the crew or anything else, is absent. There is nothing beholden to anything outside of the pick and choose history playset that Lucas Pope uses to make up his story about a Kraken and some six-tittied mermaids terrorising a ship full of greedy people. It doesn’t care about it’s own deeply baked-in racism, historical omission or how that would be a much more fascinating, original and necessary story to tell, because this is Pirates of the Caribbean.
For all it takes itself so seriously, that’s the closest comparison you can get for the game and even they know the East India Company were the bad guys. It’s not even as entertaining as one of those films because, like a lot of detective games, there is no urgency to it. There is nothing tying me to the case other than a desire to do my job as an investigator who will shrug it all off in the end as just another weird and wacky case, and drink a cup of good old ‘British’ tea. Literally, why should I care about this Orientalist, ahistorical, completely non-urgent game when my character doesn’t even care?
Why should I give a fuck beyond the fact it looks pretty, and it’s cool that you have a pocket watch that lets you see back in time?