Return of the Obra Dinn & Lateral Information

It fascinates how video games convey information to their players. I remember picking up Ocarina of Time 3D for my brand new 3DS in 2014 and having the toughest time with the dungeons. After not really playing video games for 10+ years, my knowledge of how games design puzzles was dusty at best. Like any form of media, video games have certain things they expect the player to know coming in, a sort of jargon almost. Red barrels will explode, if townsfolk keep mentioning a cave to the west then that’s where you should go, solutions to puzzles are most likely located very nearby. Besides mechanics that can be used throughout the game, a lot of information found by a player in a level tends to stay there. But recently, I replayed Lucas Pope’s Return of the Obra Dinn after finishing his other game, Papers, Please, and how that game tells the player important information through a concept I refer to as lateral information is truly incredible.

Lateral information is similar to lateral communication in an office. The term refers to how workers on the hierarchical level across departments will discuss and work to resolve issues that affect the company as a whole. Lateral information are details or information in a game placed throughout a playthrough to be used in different sections or at different times. It is information gained by the player through thoughtful level design or story. I don’t consider power ups or items to be part of this definition because those are more tied to mechanics than information.

The core gameplay loop of Obra Dinn is based around gathering lateral information. In the game, you play as an insurance agent investigating what happened to the titular ship, which has drifted to harbor with its entire crew and passengers either dead or missing. In your possession is a stop watch that transports you to the exact moment a death has occurred. With this ability to view deaths, you are tasked with two goals: figure out who each person is and how they died. A death memory feels like entering a diorama and it can be overwhelming at times when you first experience the chaos of sounds, still figures, and rooms. There is a lot to take in but it is important to study everything you can in a scene: who is present, items characters may be holding, what jobs they seem to be performing, etc. All this information is important and it is up to the player to notice the details.

Most memories require information discovered during other memories to solve. The game becomes more and more open design-wise as the player discovers new memories, and it is left to them to gather the information and make the deductions needed to solve the fates of the crew. This gives the player plenty of time to investigate memories at their leisure, plenty of time to find the important clues, and plenty of time to think of how everything is tying together. This is lateral information. Using clues in memories to solve other questions in the game, all while treating all information as equally important, is the lateral information that Lucas Pope uses to great effect in Obra Dinn.

As a board concept, lateral information can be used in many different ways. As mentioned before, one use is to incentivize players to investigate everything in a memory. Since there is no way for a player to tell what they’re looking at will prove to be a useful piece of information, they have to comb through every little detail and commit what they can to memory. This does wonders to draw the player into the game world. By focusing on everything, players will naturally learn the structure of the ship and the peoples’ relationships aboard it. Add in the unique, monochromatic art style and you have a game world that is deeply immersive that keeps players grounded in it through constant focus.

Lateral information also helps structure progression through Obra Dinn. As you visit memories and discover the fates of the crew members, you will write down their identities and deaths in a book. Each disappeared person has a portrait for themselves and those portraits will be clear if you have found enough information to determine their identities or cloudy if you have not. This helps guide the player through the game before they have found all the memories because it tells them that either they haven’t found enough information, therefore needing future memories to solve, or they have found enough so they could puzzle out that person’s identity right there. Identities do have levels of difficulty to solve so it is often better to save difficult ones for later, but the picture system tells players that all the necessary information they need for that particular character can be found in previously discovered memories.

The greatest strength from lateral information that Obra Dinn gains is how it leads players to organically revisit and explore past memories once they have all been found. Since the bodies can be found in a nonlinear order, it’s nearly impossible to solve all the fates before the storm comes over the ship, indicating that all the memories have been discovered. This means that the player will have to go through memories they think have important information and reexamine them. In most other games, the solutions to a puzzle would be in the general area of the puzzle or there would be a near linear path to the solution. Obra Dinn is not like this. Since the whole design of the game is based around collecting lateral information from everywhere throughout the game, it’s natural that players would need to re-explore past areas and the game encourages this simply by how it is designed. Since the players have already been exploring the ship at their own pace and learning how to look for and collect important details, they are completely ready when the reigns are let off entirely. Even other puzzle games tend to increase the challenge by changing the mechanics whether it be through adding more rules as the game progresses, adding more variables to levels, or making the movement to complete the puzzles more complicated. Obra Dinn is different to these too because the gameplay and mechanics are the same throughout the entirety of a playthrough. Difficulty is only determined by the details players are expected to find. 

I hope games start to utilize more lateral information in their design. Not just puzzle games, but all types of games. This style of giving the player information helps the world of a game feel more organic and less constructed, it helps players become immersed in the world, and it helps them feel clever after solving a puzzle by recalling information found previously in the game without any indication to do so. Lucas Pope utilized lateral information so well in Return of the Obra Dinn, that I, someone who is usually pretty bad at puzzle games, managed to complete it. Not only that, but it has become one of my favorite games from a design aspect because it just fascinates me how the game feeds the player information.

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