Road to the IGF: Lucas Pope's Return of the Obra Dinn
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
Return of the Obra Dinn sets the player free on a dead ship heavy with mysteries, asking them to unravel a massive snarl of events and clues to reveal what happened to this lost crew.
Gamasutra spoke with Lucas Pope, solo developer of the Seumas McNally Grand Prize- and Excellence in Everything-nominated title, to talk about the challenges that come up with creating such a colossal, interweaving series of mysteries, how to know when you're revealing too much or too little when you know the whole story, and the mood the developer sought with the game's striking 1-bit art style.
I'm Lucas Pope, and I created Return of the Obra Dinn as a solo developer.
I've been making games for most of my life; BASIC type-ins on the TI-99/4A, Hypercard distractions on classic Mac, 6502 ASM games on C64, Quake mods, commercial console titles, and computer games.
Born of a visual style
The project started with me wanting to build a modern 3D game using 1-bit rendering output. I had a few ideas of how to make a game out of it, but most of them were too complicated or difficult for a one-person dev. I basically jumped in on the visuals and sorted out the rest over four and a half years of development.
Shipmaker's tool chest
The game is built in Unity, and I credit that with making the whole thing possible in the first place. Modeling in Maya, graphics in Photoshop, story visualizations in Scapple, audio in Audition, music in Logic Pro X, code in VSCode, and more that I'm forgetting. I built a sizable library of custom tools to help with story structuring, script management, sound editing, character construction, geometry editing, scene articulation, etc.
On designing a mystery that spans a massive ship and crew
This was the central challenge in designing the narrative and how it related to the player's progression. The first step was breaking down the fate of the Obra Dinn into discrete disasters that each wiped out a few characters. That helped me work from the top down, and also established a structure that the player could hope to compartmentalize and understand more easily.
The next step was to place each death somewhere in the narrative, considered on two axes: chronologically in time, and order of player discovery. I built a special tool to help with this - it's basically a huge spreadsheet - but still, it was a long and difficult task with lots of iteration.
Creating appeal a single mystery at a time
I tried to make each scene interesting on its own and not dependent on a deep understanding of exactly what's going on from the bigger picture. Hopefully that pulls the player through to the point where they can put things together and feel compelled to start solving fates, maybe by recognizing a fleeting name or familiar face.
I usually cater to my own tastes in game design, and for me, just facing that empty book is enough to pressure me into filling it out. My goal for Obra Dinn was to overwhelm the player initially, then give them time to get comfortable with the core loop before relying on their internal compulsions to motivate them into solving all the fates and completing the book.
On the challenges of doling out clues when you know all the answers
This was a little tricky, especially the part about doling out information in an interesting way when I already know the whole story inside and out. I had some small advantage in that the core focus of the gameplay is strictly on specific fates and identities, and the player's understanding of the larger mystery is mostly irrelevant. That meant that I could focus on the mechanical aspects of clues somewhat separately from how the story is revealed.
I didn't start out with a plan for how each identity is revealed. Instead I tried to make the high-level story interesting, with an eye on putting the characters in enough different situations that there would be space for clues to be sprinkled around.
On designing Obra Dinn's invaluable book tool
The book was a fairly late addition to the game, as an answer to the dizzying complexity of the narrative. I'd basically painted myself into a corner with the story and the previous set of simple logbook pages (muster, sea chart, and deck map) wasn't nearly enough for the player to understand things clearly. The book ended up being the perfect tool for setting down both the sequence of events when they're experienced out of order, and a logical rationale for inputting everyone's fate. Because everyone knows how a book works, I could lean into a few metaphors like chapters, bookmark system, glossary, table of contents, and more without detailed instructions.
The nostalgic appeal of the 1-bit art style
Pure nostalgia. I have very fond memories of our family's first computer, a Mac Plus. The crisp black & white graphics were a complete wonder, and the whole interface was just perfect to a young me. I played lots of games like Dark Castle, Shadowgate, Sim City, Shufflepuck Cafe, Fool's Errand, etc, and spent a lot of time drawing things in MacPaint or writing tools and games in HyperCard. I knew it was possible to do interesting things with 1-bit graphics, and I felt that what was possible in 3D could strike the balance of legibility and uncertainty that I enjoy in games.
Orienting the player with music
The flashback music is intended to add some dramatic punctuation and to contrast with the main ship exploration where there's no music. I chose classical instrumentation to better fit the setting and originally planned to write unique songs for all 49 flashbacks. Each song is only one minute long, so this seemed doable until I sat down to actually do it. That was in early 2018, long past the point when I just wanted to get the game done. I ended up instead composing a unique theme for each chapter, with two alternating variations. This was a lot more manageable on the production side, but it also served the gameplay well - the themes are subtle landmarks to help the player orient themselves in the story.