It's difficult to talk about Lucas Pope's newest game Return of the Obra Dinn without bringing up his previous title Papers, Please the acclaimed "dystopian document thriller" that swept the 2014 Independent Games Festival Awards earlier this year. But for Pope, his energy for the title is all since spent. It's time for new adventures.
"People are constantly asking for a sequel to Papers, Please," Pope told Polygon. "People think I can make a game like this out of any kind of gate out there. Make one using TSA checking, or a bouncer at a club. But I've lost interest in Papers, Please. There's no fire there anymore. I couldn't make a sequel because my brain is not able to focus on that kind of project, at least right now."
Even though work on Obra Dinn is under way, Pope is still somewhat involved with Papers, Please running support, providing general maintenance and managing distribution. Localization for the title began immediately after the game was finished, which took four months to complete. At the time, Pope knew he wanted to make his next game in black and white 3D, and after pushing the localization for Papers, Please he was ready to center his attention on something new.
"When I make a game, I'm completely consumed by it and have a limited amount of time to work on it," Pope said. "I give myself like six to nine months, and if I spend too long on a game, I'll just lose interest in it. Usually I'm so obsessed about something that I have to work on it all the time, even when I'm not working I will think about it.
"I shudder when I think about what's going to happen, when I have a couple of games under my belt that are popular," he added. "I'm a little worried about how I'm going to manage that."
The seedling for Obra Dinn was Pope's desire to make a game completely in black and white — no grayscale, just black and white pixels. Pope is aware of the restrictions this places on Obra Dinn's visuals, but the idea of a highly-detailed black and white 3D game, something akin to old Macintosh games, is deeply appealing to him.
"I shudder when I think about what's going to happen, when I have a couple of games under my belt that are popular."
"When I decided to do 3D, I knew I had to keep the scope small as far as the level structure goes, and the idea of a ship fit really well with that," Pope said. "One ship, no environment: It plays into that visual style. I originally thought of other things I could do besides a ship floating around — I had the idea for maybe a pyramid, or something set in nuclear power plant.
"I realized that if I did a ship, I would have to do it a little differently," he added. "It couldn't be a pirate ship, or a galleon or the typical ships you see in games these days. This lead me to the early 1800s, and East Indiamen merchant ships.
"It's hard to find information about these kinds of ships, even though they're the backbone of all European trade. They're not that glamorous, and it seemed really interesting to me, to tie it into taking a mundane subject and making a game out of it. East Indiamen were just guys trading goods while someone else made money off their stuff."
Obra Dinn is still in early prototyping stages, with the game's core mechanic still up in the air. Making a good game means going this sort of backwards route, setting up a challenge he believes he can solve, Pope said. Through this approach, it appears he's leaving Obra Dinn's "slightly cool gameplay hook" for after he's set up more of the game's environment.
"I do want to involve some mundane aspects, but the game is going to be more fantastic, with more fantasy elements than Papers, Please," he said. "It won't be strictly realistic. I want to tie it into some amount of realism, and I have an idea for that but it's tied into the core mechanic. I haven't worked on it yet, which is wrong — I usually start with the core mechanic. But this game was motivated by visual style and I decided to work on that first. It's probably a bad move, but I have enough confidence in the accoutrement of the game that I think I can make a good mechanic in the end based on the story and setting. On projects, I swing one way or the other, and I swung far in design for Papers, Please so I want to swing back the other way for visuals on Obra Dinn."
The game will be minimalistic like its predecessor because Pope again wants players to flesh out the narrative's look with their own imagination. Keeping things minimal engages players' minds, making them work harder but also allowing them to interpret what they are experiencing in a way that strikes their own emotional chords. Players fill in the context themselves, and that's when it gets personal.
"I want to keep the game less literal and more vague and let player fill in blanks," Pope said. "So for Obra Dinn I don't want to put in textures and make everything look exactly as it does in real life. Visuals are rudimentary and limited, but audio will be fairly high-res and realistic, so if you close our eyes you can imagine being on the ship. It feeds the imagination a little more and when they see the game they think they'll be hearing bleeps and bloops from an mid 80s game, but that's not what I'm going for."
As for Obra Dinn's gameplay hook, Pope isn't ready to reveal it yet because he's not sure how he'd like to go about doing so. What he can say, is that like Papers, Please it will make players rely heavily on context clues, making it necessary to really dig into the nooks and crannies of the ship to progress. This design element is also reactive of Papers, Please; there will be less dialogue and on-screen text so as to avoid the same "localization hell" as his previous game.
"Papers, Please localization was a complete bitch, a totally pain in the ass," Pope said. "The way the needle is swinging this time, I'm making it so freaking easy to localize this game, you won't even believe it."
"This is the Jim Carrey doing his serious role when everyone just wants him to do a comedy."
Pope didn't expect Papers, Please to blow up the way it has, and he's worried there's an expectation that will continue to make "dystopian communist-themed empathy games."
"Obra Dinn is me swinging the other way to do something different," he said. "This is the Jim Carrey doing his serious role when everyone just wants him to do a comedy."
While he's open to iOS or PlayStation Vita ports of Papers, Please, he won't be making a sequel because he isn't interested in returning to that universe. His goal is to finish Return of the Obra Dinn in time to submit the game to the Independent Games Festival. Not because he wants to win, but because it helps give him a non-negotiable hard stop.
"Lots of indies just work on something forever, but I don't want to do that because I lose interest and wanna start working on some others things," Pope said. "I just get burned out and saying I'm going to finish something for IGF is good way to set myself a hard deadline."