SAITAMA, Japan—Return of the Obra Dinn, the latest video game from designer, programmer, artist, writer, and musician Lucas Pope, revolves around a massive cast of characters. Of course, there is one minor detail—they’re all presumed dead.
In the game, players must sort through the histories and fates of dozens of men, women, and children by working as an insurance adjuster. There’s a cursed cargo ship and magic, yes, but also a giant log book, a glossary, and a massive list of names to account for and cross-reference.
If you didn’t know Pope’s pedigree—as one of the best independent game makers in the world, and the one-man shop responsible for Ars Technica’s 2013 Game of the Year Papers, Please—you might think that premise sounds humdrum. But as in his other games, Pope somehow turns the humdrum into something incredible. Upon first boot, the goal can feel intimidating. Every crew member fills the pages of your virtual book, and the task of keeping them straight is enough to set an anxious player on edge.
I think about this—the virtual book, the names, the number of souls crowded onto this cursed boat called Obra Dinn—when I enter Omiya Station, 40 minutes north of Tokyo via train, one breezy October day. Pope has lived in Japan for nearly a decade, following another decade-plus of work in the American games industry. It’s here in the town of Saitama that he worked on the majority of his 2018 game, another Top 10 entry in the Ars Technica Games of the Year list.
While waiting for Pope to arrive and chat about this game and others in his career (particularly Uncharted 1 & 2), I can’t help but notice how insane this station is. Pope would later describe Saitama as a lower-key alternative to the megapolis of Tokyo, but I’m taken aback by the fact that hundreds of people pass me every minute. A few dozen dead souls, recovered from a fictional pirate ship, feels quaint in comparison.
After considering his game against the relief of his home nation, I get it. Obra Dinn was Pope’s chance to do some compelling things with the classic-gaming backbone of solving a mystery and juggling clues, but it is also his most intimate game: one in which the names that whisk by in a ledger might stand out for long enough to pick through, care about, and eulogize. That, in part, explains why it took him a whopping 4.5 years to finish. As I came to learn, the modern classic only happened after Pope had mastered enough game development tools (including many he’d built from scratch) to tell his most singular story yet within a video game.
“The rigmarole of the procedure”
Eventually, Pope emerges at the station. He’s easy to find, towering over most of the Omiya crowd at a height well over six feet, with the kind of sharp, Scandinavian features, thin goatee, and long, tousled hair that would look appropriate either on a software engineer or a heavy metal drummer. (Pope eventually admits that he also has experience with the latter.)
He leads me to a nearby Doutor Coffee location, and for good reason. Pope hasn’t slept much as of late, he says, owing to Obra Dinn‘s impending launch the following week in October. A 5pm coffee is his ideal first stop.
Pope is careful not to let too much slip about release-week anxiety or bug-hunting trouble, perhaps to downplay how big a deal it is that he has snuck out for a coffee and chat. (I may have lucked out due to a peculiar coincidence: Obra Dinn was launching while I was in Japan for a vacation. And I’m the kind of crazy person who thinks chatting with a game-design genius is a fine way to spend my time off.)
In our hours of chatting over pastries, drinks, and noodles, one through-line becomes apparent: Pope’s money-where-his-mouth-is approach to the design, production, and creation of video games. I later realize that one of his throwaway quotes fits him as a statement of intent:
“I love tools. I love making tools. And nobody likes tools.”
Pope alleges that getting hired at established game studios—namely, Realtime Associates in 2003 and Naughty Dog in 2007—stemmed from his passion for developing custom toolsets for game design (meaning, outside the “bigger” tool realm of Unity, Maya, Photoshop, et al). Pope offers a list of “lesser” game-development needs: “To get scripts into the game. Get localizations into the game. Tools to place objects, to place [metadata] tags.
“Making that, it’s a derivative of the actual game,” Pope continues. “Some game programmers don’t like to work on that, [the parts that] players don’t see in the end game. But for me, that kind of work involves user interface, design, programming, and some art—all the things I love. I love making a tool that solves a really difficult task needed to get something into your game.”
Pope offers an example at a hypothetical game studio: a complicated, unsexy task comes up for a single staffer, and the company’s response is to tell said staffer, whose “time is cheap,” to figure it out him or herself. “My thinking is, write a tool that makes it super easy, so anybody can do it. Then they actually enjoy doing it. The quality of the stuff they produce that gets into the game is way better, because you’re not wasting your time with bullshit, rote things that the computer can do well. Computers are great at that sort of thing! The fact that I’m interested in that means that I’m already different from most programmers in the game industry.”
I inadvertently laugh. That sounds like a review of Pope’s video games, doesn’t it? He nods affirmatively. “Papers, Please is the rigmarole of the procedure of doing a thing—of, ‘how can I make that efficient?'”
He’s right. Papers, Please revolves around the sorting and cross-referencing of data—only, well, abstracted into the identities and histories of human beings. That game assigns you the task of working as a border patrol agent, and you must play what amounts to a high-stakes game of Minesweeper, of juggling documents and verifying their text and image details. In other words: it’s something that sounds like a behind-the-scenes computer tool, used to make game design more efficient, becoming an addictive, drama-filled video game.
Obra Dinn has a similar quality, in that it turns a dry-sounding idea (manage and sort a web of AI personalities to identify their identities and relationships) into a compelling interactive experience (go back in time and use magic to solve a bunch of murders).