“A curse like that does not lift for nothing” – Return of the Obra Dinn and the Legacy of 19th century ecoGothic narratives

Originally submitted as an extended abstract.

Lucas Pope’s critically acclaimed puzzle game, Return of the Obra Dinn, carries with it the legacy of early to mid-19th-century ecophobia and an emerging sense of guilt about humanity’s violence towards nature found in Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, Shelley’s Frankenstein: or the Modern Day Prometheus and Melville’s Moby Dick. Pope illustrates the culpability of the human in their own tragic downfall using nautical ecogothic to depict the correlation between the ecological crimes of humans and their eventual fate. The narrative of this ill-fated voyage draws on ecogothic conventions of monstrosity, corruption, contagion and vengeance. Linked through memories of their deaths, the interweaving stories ofthe characters in the Return of the Obra Dinn demonstrate the potential for narrative-driven video games to meaningfully invoke the ecogothic.


Designed to emulate the record-keeping of the East India Company, the narrative of Return of the Obra Dinn and the lost souls aboard the ship are chronicled in the ship’s ledger, which the player, acting as an insurance adjuster must complete. In this, the player is implicated in creating the text rather than simply conducting investigation and passive observation.  Through the ‘Memento Morte’ timepiece and the corporeal remains of a crew member, the player is transported back to the exact moment of a character’s death.  The player must then navigate a maze of murder, misadventure and tragedy, guided only by the last few moments of individuals, to find the full narrative of the expedition. The gradual unravelling of this mystery evokes a sense of creeping dread and horrific realisation as the true nature of the ecological and social transgressions aboard the ship are laid bare.

The Doomed Expedition

Doomed from the outset, the ‘good ship’ Obra Dinn is, in part, on an expedition to steal something valuable from the sea, but the sea fights back. This act of theft and hubris is at the heart of, not only the gothic fiction of the 19th century in which the game is set, but in the accounts of failed expeditions that have fallen into infamy. Catherine Lanone (2016) cites the ill-fated Arctic exploration of Sir John Franklin as a particularly influential cultural narrative of the doomed expedition, in addition to literary narratives of misadventure such as Walton’s framing narrative for Frankenstein (Shelley 1832). Like the act of violence that starts in motion the devastating series of events in ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (Coleridge 1834), the ‘souls’ aboard the ship commit a similar ecological atrocity. This act of theft, whilst arguably more audacious than the killing of the albatross brings about similar torment, invoking the wrath of the ocean as a collective army.

The monstrous forces of the sea

This army of creatures that rise from the sea are derived from diverse sources, and despite being rendered in a vintage 1-bit monochromatic style, they are detailed visions of monstrosity and uncanny nature. From the mermaids that err on the side of Eldritch or folkloric hybrids rather than modern benign and sexualised humanoids to the hybrid spider crab-like spectacle of the ‘Soldiers of the Sea’, the monstrous individual guardians of the ocean demonstrate ecohorror technologies of the unknown and uncanny. The dramatic ecogothic spectacle of the Kraken, true to conventions of giant nautical monstrosities, is obscured by scale and appears as disembodied tentacles that wreak destruction on the boat. But perhaps the most pervasive and difficult to anticipate threat from the deep is the disease that plagues the crew, inviting discourse about disease as a pervasive ecogothic motif used to rationalise or illustrate persistent and insidious supernatural vengeance.

Monstrous Humanity

Whilst the monstrosity of the creatures that emerge from the deep are reflective of an entrenched anxiety about the unknown, the cruelty and vindictiveness of humans is an expression of self-reflexive guilt. This guilt is borne out of an understanding of our own culpability in violence and exploitation. Despite the monstrosity and violence of the ocean’s army, the violent deaths could be averted through simple acts of ecological atonement and compassion.

The grief-stricken captain demonstrates a fundamental inability to empathise with the non-human which proves to be his undoing. He is unable to envisage a mode of being with the non-human that does not incorporate domination and human supremacy. This is juxtaposed with the apology offered to the mermaids by the doctor who demonstrates an understanding of his obligations as part of a broader ecosystem. The entire narrative culminates in a final act of violence, the doctor’s murder of his monkey companion which facilitates the creation of this intricate web of tragedy. The crew of the Obra Dinn fought off disease, hordes of supernatural creatures and the Kraken, but ultimately it was the ecological crimes of humanity that killed the ‘souls’ aboard the Obra Dinn.

Reference list

  • Alder, Emily. ‘Through Oceans Darkly: Sea Literature and the Nautical Gothic’. Gothic Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, Manchester University Press, 2017, pp. 1–15.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. 1834.
  • Halberstam, Jack. Skin Shows. Duke University Press, 1995.
  • Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. no. 8, Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Krzywinska, Tanya. ‘The Gamification of Gothic Coordinates’. Revenant: Critical and Creative Studies of the Supernatural, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 58–78.
  • Lanone, Catherine. ‘Monsters on the Ice and Global Warming: From Mary Shelley and Sir John Franklin to Margaret Atwood and Dan Simmons’. Ecogothic, Manchester University Press, 2015.
  • McKeown, Conor. “You Bastards May Take Exactly What I Give You”: Intra-Action and Agency in Return of the Obra Dinn.
  • Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. 1851.
  • Packham, Jimmy, and Punter, David. ‘Oceanic Studies and the Gothic Deep’. Gothic Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, Edinburgh University Press, Nov. 2017, pp. 16–29, doi:10.7227/GS.0026.
  • Pope, Lucas. ‘The Return of the Obra Dinn’.
  • Salvador, Rodrigo B., and Tomotani, Barbara M. ‘The Kraken: When Myth Encounters Science’. História, Ciências, Saúde-Manguinhos, vol. 21, SciELO Brasil, 2014, pp. 971–94.
  • Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: or the Modern Day Prometheus. 1832.

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