In the spring of 2013, if you'd stopped the most committed of gamers in the street and asked him or her to name a game made by indie developer Lucas Pope, chances are they'd have struggled. He had several to his name by then, made both alone and as part of a team—6 Degrees of Sabotage, Helsing's Fire, The Republia Times, but nothing that had connected with a substantial audience.
But in the summer of 2013 came Papers, Please, a solo effort that went on to win in three categories (including the overall grand prize) at the Independent Games Festival Awards in San Francisco and took home a BAFTA from Britain the following spring. By this point, Pope's visually reserved but emotionally powerful game, putting the player in charge of an immigration control booth for a fictional Eastern European state, had sold half a million copies, and he was being recognized at airports.
The critics were wowed and gamers were beginning to turn onto his moving creation, which brought gun-tightening life-or-death decisions to what looked like a very simple game when seen on screen, over a shoulder. Check passes; stamp them when everything's as it should be; call the next person to the window. Easy, right? If you think that, you've obviously never played it.
Pope had, with one game, become something of an indie celebrity in gaming circles. Papers, Please was ported from its original PC platform to iOS devices in late 2014, introducing even more players to its roller coaster of when rights are wrong and when the only way to keep your family alive, until next week at least, is to work dirty in your booth, taking bribes and even turning away immigrants whose paperwork is completely correct. But just as musicians can feel the pressure after one song flies so much higher than what came before it, Pope could be forgiven for dreading the follow-up to a game that sent shockwaves through the modern gaming audience.
"The only worry with being known as 'the Papers, Please guy' is that my future work won't meet players' expectations," Pope tells me, over email from his home in Japan. "I consider myself very lucky for the level of success that game's had, and I think it'd be disingenuous to complain about it stifling the full breadth of my incredible thespian range. And certain core aspects of Papers, Please, the simple mechanics and rigid bureaucracy-based design structure, are present in a lot of my games, so there's very little undesirable stereotyping to rebel against."
Pope is pleased with how the iOS version of Papers, Please turned out, its screen flipped to suit iPad play without losing any of the tactile accessibility that made the PC version easy to lose (dark, depressing, unforgettable) hours to. "I think now I actually prefer the iPad version, overall. It's center-aligned, which soothes my OCD, and the multi-touch controls feel natural for manipulating all the paperwork." But despite the game's runaway success, he's not even entertaining the notion of developing a straight follow-up: "I have enough new ideas for games percolating around in my head that it'd be difficult to go back and make a sequel."
Instead, we've got Return of the Obra Dinn to look forward to. Set on a ghost ship in 1808, gameplay footage revealed to date implies that it's a kind of time-travel detective experience, the player charged with piecing together the events that led to these skeletons on the deck and in the cabins, several of which quite clearly belong(ed) to people who didn't die of natural causes.
'Return of the Obra Dinn' development build playthrough with no commentary
"'Detective game' sounds spot-on," Pope says. "It's missing the typical 'collect objects, read notes, and solve puzzles' stuff you might expect, though. Actually, the mechanics at this point are embarrassingly simple and it's really more a game of observation and attention than anything else. Right now, the core mechanic is set and I'm more or less mired in production and narrative work on the game."
Papers, Please resonated with people because of the story that unfolded as it was played—a story that you only ever felt like you had the slightest control over, as your ten dollar "profit" on the day's work wouldn't be enough to save everyone you love from hunger, illness, or worse. It's likely that Obra Dinn will be comparably affecting—at least, I hope that it is. The straightforward mechanic Pope speaks of is surely a clue that emphasis will be placed on the fiction of the game, rather than the need to become dexterously decent at it to get anywhere.
The look of Obra Dinn is striking, even more so than the retro graphics of Papers, Please, so I ask Pope about its origins. "The first serious home computer that my family bought was a Mac Plus in the late 1980s. Since then I've always found detailed 1-bit visuals really enchanting. I wanted to take that aesthetic and update it to a modern 3-D game.
"I had a few different ideas for the setting, but settled on an old merchant sailing ship, thinking it'd be the easiest to pull off production-wise. That thought was completely wrong, but I've really enjoyed all the research into sailing ships and European merchant trade in any case. The main challenge with the visuals has been maintaining legibility, which leads directly to the [look] it has now."
Touch (creaking, salt-crusted, 19th century) wood, Obra Dinn will be out before next year's upon us, "coming to desktops first, because as a single developer there's just no feasible way to launch on desktop and consoles at the same time." That's the plan, at least.
"For timeframe, I'm not sure," Pope admits. "I originally wanted to finish the game in six months, but that was before taking time off for the iPad port of Papers, Please; before realizing the full scope of the game, and before adding another member to our family. I'd love to finish it this year."
Follow Mike on Twitter.