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On that incredible demo from the maker of Papers, Please...

Papers, Please developer Lucas Pope released an early build of his next game this week, and spoke to Gamasutra about the genesis of its remarkable mechanics and '1-bit' visual style.

Mike Rose

October 23, 2014

4 Min Read

If you follow game devs and the games press on Twitter, the chances are that you're already well aware that Lucas Pope, the guy behind Papers, Please, released an early build of his next game earlier this week. The game is called Return of the Obra Dinn, and quite honestly, it's one of the most exciting 10 minutes of video game that I've played all year. There are several reasons for this. First is the incredible visual style that Pope describes as "1-bit rendering" -- essentially, everything you see in this 3D game is made of white dotted pixels across a black background. "My family's first computer back in the 80s was a Mac Plus, so I've always been partial to that high resolution (at the time) black and white look," explains Pope. "Games like Beyond Dark Castle and Shadowgate felt so perfectly vivid to me." Pope wanted to see whether he could take that retro style and apply it to a 3D first-person puzzler, using modern rendering tech. Anyone who has tried the Obra Dinn demo can clearly see that he's on the right track. "The biggest problems have been related to maintaining the legibility of a 3D scene," he notes. "The 1-bit part isn't so bad on its own but when combined with the relatively low resolution (640x360) it gets a lot harder to parse."

"This is gonna sound way indie, but so many games are about killing things that I thought, why not make a game where the basic action is dying?"

"My solution is to reduce the dithering and to use wireframes to define shapes and structures - almost more CAD-like than naturalistic. On the flip side, this style has been a huge win for my workload. With just two colors to worry about, and a low output resolution, creating the textures and models is a lot more manageable." So the game looks fantastically unique, but its mechanics are arguably even more intriguing. Without spoiling the demo for anyone who hasn't tried it yet, you are in possession of a watch that can take you back to the moment that a person died, and see a snapshot of that scene. "My original plan was to have you replay the last minute of someone's life in first-person," Pope says. "This is gonna sound way indie, but so many games are about killing things that I thought, why not make a game where the basic action is dying?" "So you'd start out in one area and have to make your way to the place where the person died; setting up a situation along the way so you could actually perish at the exact right moment." While he saw great potential in this angle, he soon realized that this would be a hefty amount of work, and rather impossible for a single developer. "So instead of considering a bigger team, I changed the mechanic to be about identification instead of reenactment," he continues. "Moving the action to an audio-only preroll plays well into the identification mechanic and makes production actually feasible." I mention that I'm really intrigued to see where else he takes this mechanic. Are there going to be puzzles in the more traditional video game sense spliced in there, or is Pope looking to create a more narrative-driven experience? "Right now I'd say the whole game will play out like the dev build," he answers. "You can see exactly how everyone dies but the challenge is identifying who they are." "If you had to board a ship full of dead people in 1808 I imagine this is exactly the problem you'd have," he muses. "The way you collect and apply information will have some variety, but the basic mechanics are pretty set. I don't think there'll be traditional switch or item puzzles, and I'd like to keep the note-reading to a minimum. There will, however, be a larger mystery about what happened on board that's only revealed slowly in small bits throughout the game." And I wouldn't be doing my job properly if I didn't ask about that hand animation (see video above, for example). It's incredible how much personality something as simple as a hand reaching out to open doors and pick up items is, and for Pope, it's been a fun little experiment on his part. "I wanted to avoid any kind of HUD or item highlighting, and having the player's hand do all the work seemed like a natural solution," he notes. "The implementation was also a guilty-pleasure technical challenge that I just felt like tackling. I'm using Unity3D for this game, so aside from the rendering there aren't many challenges on the programming side." You can download the development build for Return of the Obra Dinn right now (and you really should).

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