Remembering Death, Adventure and Tragedy: Grasping Videogames' Epistemic Limits Through a Postcolonial Reading of Return of the Obra Dinn
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This Bachelor thesis examines Lucas Pope’s 2018 game Return of the Obra Dinn from the perspective of postcolonial game studies and historical game studies. Using theories of colonial discourses and colonial power such as Orientalism, contact zones and hybridity, I argue that without explicitly acknowledging it as such the game presents a colonial history and reproduces (modes of) colonial thought. Colonial power in Obra Dinn is understood as structured by an Orientalist discourse, evidenced by the way the formal hierarchy maintained aboard the eponymous ship intersects with the ethnicities of its crewmembers, and by the way a group of Formosan passengers are treated. Moreover, the game itself reproduces Orientalist beliefs by exoticizing the Formosans and presenting colonialism as an adventure. Following a theoretical point of contention regarding the notion of Orientalism, I supplement the understanding of colonial power as represented in the game. Departing from the notion of contact zones, I contrapuntally read details of the game that indicate the complexity of shipboard life. However, the game undercuts an effective representation of such complexity because it reverts to colonial modes of thought in its portrayal of lived actualities. Obra Dinn’s mechanics namely reproduce a colonial epistemological and ideological framework, which the player must follow to progress through the game. The player’s aim is to solve and record the history of the Obra Dinn, whose every crewmember has disappeared or died. However, the possibilities of writing this history remain within the epistemic limits of colonialism: this amounts to filling in lists of names, which eventually produces an insurance settlement that reduces a lived history to money sums. This undermines the remembrance of the dynamism of shipboard life. Moreover, the possibilities of contesting history through play are limited since even a subversive playstyle, challenging the game mechanics’ historiographical affordances, remains confined to the aforementioned lists. The player cannot escape the game’s colonial epistemic limits, which I argue extends to the form of videogames generally. The medium may be understood to inherently function as ideological interpellation, by its incessant demands on players, which leads me to position videogames as a genealogical descendant of colonial systems of administration. Players, much like colonial subjects, are inscribed in administrative systems that limit their autonomy and agency – the system is just digital now.