War Stories: Lucas Pope and what almost sank Return of the Obra Dinn

Video shot and edited by Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript.

Lucas Pope is an important name in modern gaming—not only did he help bring us Uncharted and Uncharted 2, but he’s also responsible for the indie smash hit Papers, Please, which managed to pack a surprising amount of storytelling and emotion into what is effectively a document stamping simulator.

But we’re particularly fond of Pope’s 2018 murder mystery Return of the Obra Dinn, where players must figure out what happened to all 60 souls aboard a ship that has turned up in port bereft of life (think sort of a mash-up of Clue and Event Horizon). The game’s low-fi monochrome graphical style is meant to evoke ’80s- and ’90s-era Macintosh adventure games, and it works stunningly well—the stark polygonal shapes and 1-bit stipple-shading are instantly evocative of the era. (For me, firing up Obra Dinn triggers powerful memories of hours spent at my high school computer lab, eschewing real work to play a seemingly endless pile of HyperCard adventures. Though I fought on the side of the IBMs in the Great BBS Platform Wars of the early ’90s, I just couldn’t keep my paws off of those damn Macs.)

In Obra Dinn, players use a small device on or near each of the ship’s 60 bodies to show them a brief moment in time where that person died, and the player must then make sure that the means of that person’s death is properly recorded in a logbook. It’s a mechanism that mixes together elements of logic puzzles and text adventures, and while Pope put a lot of time and thought into the pick-a-word sentence builder and the various semantic structures players might use to frame their murder theories (“Tom knifed Bob” and “Tom stabbed Bob” and “Tom cut Bob” all have to be interpreted by the game as holding the same underlying meaning), there was one monster he wasn’t prepared to face: localization.

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