There is something magical about making history. Spending your days in stuffy archives, trying to identify the right documents using cryptic descriptions and incomplete dates, finding something intriguing, ordering it and waiting in anticipation to see if it’s a gem that opens up new avenues for research, or something completely irrelevant. A slow burning marathon, sure, but one that opens up exciting, brief glimpses into the past.
Making history is about selection and prioritisation – of the limited time you have in the archive, of the myriad questions you want answers to, of the documents you will have time to look at, and more. Even if you could read every document, your narrative would still be just a pale reflection of the past, biased not only by your decisions, but also by the documents themselves. Archives, memories, websites, they too are mere reflections -subjectivity is the undeniable truth of the discipline.
Until recently, Her Story was the only game that made me feel like like I was making history. Her Story’s interface is an archive – a short video of a woman being interrogated and a text box that allows you to search for key terms, uncovering more videos, repeating until it becomes clear what happened in the story. This step-by-step process is very familiar to me as a historian who relies on archives. I have often found something interesting and unexpected in a document: a name, an organisation, an event, and then used it as a guideline – looking it up online, seeing how it is connected to my research, looking for it in the archive. In that way, Her Story simulates both the thrill of finding something as well as the disappointment of going down the wrong path. To this day, it is the best approximation of this archival experience in the medium.
Now, though, we have Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn. In the game, you are an insurance agent of the East India Company who arrives on the titular stranded ship. Your job is to piece together the fates of the crew and passengers with the help of a watch that allows you to see and hear the moment of a person’s death, recreated as a still scene on the ship through which you can move. At the start, the game gives you a manifest of all the passengers, with their names, jobs and places of origin, and two sketches portraying every person on the ship. Armed with this information, you must identify each person against the manifest, how they were killed and by whom. To stop you from guessing randomly, the game only confirms correct fates in threes, making for a tense adventure where you’re never sure if you’re making the right decisions. Unlike my experience with Her Story, by the time I played Return of the Obra Dinn I have done all my archival research and defended my PhD thesis, and while I maintain that Her Story’s mechanics are still a closer approximation of the mechanics of archival research, Obra Dinn nails the broader feeling of making history.
The history I make is about the 1920s in Central Asia, a tumultuous time. The Soviets were in the process of re-configuring Tsarist rule in the region, while local elites were looking for ways to take advantage of the fact that the central Soviet leadership focused on other issues it deemed more pressing. As a result, the local elites took their chance and carved new Soviet republics out of the existing Bukhara, Khiva and Turkestan entities based on what they imagined the titular nationalities to be: Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbek, with the Central Committee only checking in on the whole thing once in a while. Well, this is what I (broadly) argue – this is my view of the past, this is the history I made from the documents I selected and prioritised, from the people I identified as being important to this story.
In Obra Dinn, as you identify people and the ways in which they die, you wait for the alluring sound effect signalling that you got the fates of three people correct. Honestly, this, especially once you figure out how to approach the game and the identifications start piling up, this evokes the same feeling of finding that one gem, that one important piece of archival evidence. I came across a few of those while researching for my PhD, uncovering motivations behind policy decisions, or confirming individual names and identities, and it is always exhilarating.
Names and identities are tricky, though. When I booted up Obra Dinn for the first time, saw the pictures and the manifest, I was hoping that the game would challenge me – but not in a way you would expect. The manifest stores the name and origin of each person on board, and it is up to you to connect that information to their sketched representations. Naturally, some names stand out. What I really wanted was for the game to ask me if I really am the person who would guess at random who the Indian sailors were, just because they *look* or *sound* Indian – whatever that means.
Instead, I wanted to see clues of their identity, maybe a name scrawled on a bed or on a piece of paper pinned to their rucksack, something, anything. Instead, when I was 100% sure of two other deaths, I would cycle through “the Indians” until I found the right one. It’s not just that this was possible, the problem is that this was the intended way of determining their identities. I wanted the game to punish me for guessing names based on race, looks, perceived national/ethnic origin. Instead, it encouraged it.
By the end of the 1920s and going into the 1930s the Soviets were in a much more comfortable position, and were able to turn some of their attention to Central Asia. This amounted to, among other things, killing most of the native functionaries who did the carving in the 1920s. During my time at the Central State Archive of the Kyrgyz Republic in Bishkek, I saw many names. Khudaikulov, Sydykov, Abdrakhmanov, Toichinov, Sadaev, Aidarbekov, Zul’fibaev – all important figures who set up the autonomous oblast that would later become the Kyrgyz Republic. Sometimes I would find a new name in a document and quickly assess whether that person was Kyrgyz, Central Asian or a foreigner.
Shamuhamedov? Hmmm, that sounds Uzbek? Oh, here he is, saying that while he looks Chinese and speaks Uzbek, he is actually Kyrgyz? Interesting…
The truth is that these designations are constructed. Ethnicity, race, national identity, all these markers are contextual, based on who one is talking to, where and why. So, when Shamuhamedov spoke at the First Kyrgyz Congress hoping to convince the new government of petitioning the central Soviet authorities to delimit his village to the Kyrgyz, he was eager to underline his Kyrgyz identity. After all, he was currently living in the Uzbek republic, where he was discriminated based on his “nationality”.
This is what I wanted Obra Dinn to do – to highlight the vagueness, the shiftiness of identity, to muddle the boundaries between who was, for example, Indian and who was British. Shamuhamedov succeeded in his petition – but how did he identify himself when he went back home, when he was with his family? Or when he talked to a trader passing through the village? Sure, there is a valuable distinction between China and Formosa in the game, despite the heavy orientalist vibes coming from the latter, and there is a clear class structure headed by white, male British officers whose names I can still remember because the game’s narrative unfortunately revolves mostly around them, but it was not enough, something was off.
I think I realised what it was after writing and re-writing this numerous times – it is the overwhelming, cold feeling that the ship is a mass grave.
In the summer of 2017, when the Bishkek archive was closed for a day, I took a short trip outside of the city to the Ata-Beyit memorial complex, knowing that it was a site of a mass grave of over 100 Kyrgyz functionaries murdered over 3 nights in November 1938, the height of the political purges across the USSR.
I saw the names of many of the people I was researching, and my work felt much more real than it did ever before, my connection to these people grew stronger. My knowledge of their death was abstract – but here I was now, standing on top of their bones, just a few hours after looking at their signatures approving policies, at their notes on the margins of reports.
The rain started falling on the red marble, laid so low it felt like the grave was sucking the stone into the earth. I couldn’t get a decent picture of the names; it was overcast and the rain droplets extinguished the golden letters that told me which of the people I researched were lying in the ground here, mowed down, unceremoniously, and almost forgotten. The museum about them was closed.
Names are important – but we don’t always need names to mourn the dead and celebrate the living. What I did not realise was that this complex also had a memorial to Urkun – a forced migration of Central Asians caused by a change in the Tsarist conscription policy in 1916 that saw most of the semi-nomadic people occupying what is now Kyrgyzstan flee East into Chinese Turkestan, before returning fully only by the mid-to-late 1920s. The death tally is unclear, but anywhere from 40’000 to 250’000 people died as a result.
The Urkun memorial does not have a list of names. With thousands of semi-nomadic people perishing over 100 years ago in a remote, mountainous area with little Tsarist control followed by two revolutions and multiple Red Army campaigns, recording names for public posterity was not a priority. Urkun is a personal tragedy etched in stories passed down the surviving families as much as it is a “national” one.
This memorial, though, is not a low stone block; instead it is an emphatic, tall structure made to resemble a traditional Kyrgyz yurt that represents the people, the suspended stirrups an echo of their nomadism, a gesture to the horses that saved their owners. And so, this memorial is a reminder of the tragedy, yes, but also a reminder that the people persevered through it as a whole, an affirmation of their spirit and way of life, towering over the cold mass grave a level below, over the surrounding scenery, visible as soon as you leave the city.
At the end of Return of the Obra Dinn, the insurance agent tallies up each person’s contribution to the ship’s mission. The estates of those who died “honourably”, defined by how well they protected the property of the East India Company, were given a commendation and some money. The estates of those who did not do so were fined.
Ultimately, their lives ended in monetary exchanges: the sailors given a pittance, the officers more. In death, and in life, Obra Dinn shows that our class status remains, and we cannot escape the monetisation of our lives even when we die in the middle of the ocean. As a commentary on globalisation and the problems brought about by our late stage capitalist reality: a shrewd, incisive ending. Perhaps even the cycling of Indians was designed specifically to point out our innate biases?
I can’t help thinking, though, that perhaps Obra Dinn, while being extremely enjoyable mechanically, does not quite move past one of the most vital critiques of Papers Please, Lucas Pope’s previous game, written by Marijam Didžgalvytė in 2016 – specifically its’ inability to go beyond “mundane preaching” about oppression via the eyes of the oppressor. As in the last game, the protagonist is embedded in an oppressive structure – an insurance agent of the East India Company in this case – and again the game’s commentary about the monetary value of life, the intersectional oppression of class and race seems hollow in light of its focus on agents of oppression, and on those who benefit from it.
Perhaps if the game sought to be more of a memorial, an affirmation of spirit, of triumph through adversity, it could have moved beyond its rather cynical finale. As it is, the ending leaves you with overwhelming coldness, an impression of a mass grave of names, faces and monetary amounts.