Lucas Pope: Indie games visionary makes pen-pushing feel like an exciting career choice
Ghost ship intrigue in Return of the Obra Dinn, border bureaucracy in Papers, Please
The RPG Greetings, traveller, and welcome back to The Register Plays Games. Five months in, the column has left me wondering why I've burned so many of my hard-earned Register tokens on stuffing my rig with powerful hardware. Darkest Dungeon is a 2D, side-scrolling roguelike and Kenshi's graphics are straight out of 2009 – neither take a high-end machine to run and enjoy but, sure, it helps.
I would never describe myself as an "indie games fan" specifically, nor are they meant to be the focus of this monthly rant, though it seems to have happened naturally while I wasn't looking.
The last major update to my PC's innards was the GPU, spurred by disappointing performance in EA DICE's Battlefield V (BFV), which turned out to be a disappointment itself. The mobo and CPU could do with being replaced in the near future, but why now when any demanding game will run flawlessly?
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And yet, though I have played many visually impressive, big-budget titles during this time, I keep finding pixel art staring back from my 144Hz, curved pr0 g4m3r monitor (also a recent e-peen extension).
Real talk – a lot of AAAs ship in a sorry state that can last months before they're patched, only to break a litany of other features or mechanics. Rinse, repeat.
Bugs plagued the early days of BFV (they still do) and the game's insistence on completing challenges to unlock, say, new weapons – nothing important – became infuriating when a glitch would render the task impossible. Oh yeah, you have to pay real money for the new items if you weren't able to beat the challenges in time. Last week I finally uninstalled it, confident that improvements I had hoped for weren't in the pipeline. It's a sad fall from grace for an excellent franchise.
EA is to blame. Big publishers are beholden to shareholders, trends and unrealistic deadlines, not their loyal player base, and the result is too often a sloppy, rushed mess. The "Battle Royale" genre's (Fortnite, PUBG) overwhelming success has given credence to F2P, microtransaction and lootbox ("surprise mechanics", anyone?) revenue models as something desirable. Everyone sees dollar signs, innovation is stifled, and mainstream gaming becomes an ever more monotonous place.
So I look for things that might interest me, that might interest you, far away from all of that, and usually end up in the territory of very small dev teams. Sometimes it may even be mostly the hard graft of just one individual – as is the case here.
Return of the Obra Dinn
The monochrome banner image for this game – redolent of a dot-matrix title screen on the original Game Boy – was all it took to catch my eye. I kept seeing it floating around Steam and recently decided to take the plunge. I went in totally blind so when I saw the graphics, my jaw dropped. Honestly, despite the minimalism, there were moments where I uttered "What the fuck?" out loud. It's so well done.
Built in the Unity engine and released last autumn, Obra Dinn aims to replicate the feeling of old black-and-white Macintosh games – but in 3D. It sounds like no mean feat but, by the gods, it works. A fun little quirk for you old-timers out there is that on opening the game settings (after a quick boogie to the jaunty sea shanty theme), you can select colour palettes based on Macintosh, IBM 5151, IBM 8503, Zenith ZVM 1240, Commodore 1084 and LCD monitors.
OK, so it's another paean to the dawn of video gaming that looks absolutely beautiful, but what is it about? The eponymous Obra Dinn is an East India Company merchant vessel assumed lost at sea in 1803. However, in 1807, the ghost ship appears off the coast of Falmouth seriously damaged and with the entire crew unaccounted for.
This is where it gets exciting. You are the lucky claims adjuster tasked with unravelling the mystery to dole out payments accordingly. No swashbuckling adventure here, just cold, hard facts. But if insurance is this fun, I am in the wrong industry.
How it works is that you quickly come into the possession of a magical pocket watch that can turn back time to the moment of someone's death, along with a book including the ship's manifest, a list of crew and passengers, and some pictures of life on board. Corpses trigger the watch to cast the player back to dialogue and a freeze frame that you can then walk around and investigate, opening up further lines of inquiry. The book's chapters are gradually filled in as you figure out what happened.
It's kind of like an epic game of Guess Who?, except you must identify every single person who was on the ship (there were 60) when it set out in 1802. This is done by various methods of logical deduction, which includes but is not limited to recognising the crew members' accents, noting their names, country of origin, appearance, attire, role, carefully listening to what they say and who they are talking to, and otherwise by process of elimination.
Both their names and fates must be correctly deduced, including who (or what… oooo spooky) was responsible for their death, if applicable. Fates are verified in trios so if you have three filled in and the game isn't saying anything, you've got something wrong. Fortunately, this means that you can't finish Return of the Obra Dinn without being 100 per cent correct. It took me almost 10 hours (estimated, I had to restart due to an unfortunate bug and lack of a cloud save, though strangely a clean slate helped my playthrough immeasurably) and I loved every minute. However, at times it can be really quite obscure and fiendish.
If you've developed a false belief that this guy can't possibly be x, y or z, you can doom yourself to a frustrating pad around the ship's decks where nothing seems to fit together. However, when you do decipher fates correctly, the rush of feeling your IQ rocket to 300 will likely keep you glued. To make things more complicated, the time line is completely out of whack, starting at the end of the ill-fated voyage and constantly jumping forwards and back, so for at least half the game you're left in a warm state of semi-befuddlement.
It is absolutely perfect, however, if puzzling adventures are your thing, and one of the most unique video games I've ever had the pleasure of completing. Such was its impression on me that I had to find out who was responsible (and give myself an extension on word count. If you're still here, beer icon to you).
Lucas Pope, aside from being an obvious polymath, is an engineer's developer. He studied mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech because he liked the idea of building robots, but ultimately found the Quake modding community more rewarding. His career is well documented elsewhere, but his breakthrough was a gig with Naughty Dog of The Last of Us fame where he created GUI tools for the first two Uncharted games.
However, his interest in experimental games won out and with his wife, Keiko Ishizaka, he developed a series of small but unique titles on a variety of platforms. Frequent travelling for work inspired the last game – Papers, Please – which I heard an awful lot about when it was released way back in 2013, but since I wasn't an "indie games fan" I never bothered to take a look. However, putting two and two together after beating Obra Dinn, I thought it necessary to explore.
From 19th-century insurance adjuster to 1980s Soviet-esque border bureaucracy, Pope really seems to know how to make pen-pushing exciting. "Papers, Please" is what the player will be asking the wonderfully dubious cast of characters that queues up for entry into the glorious nation of Arstotzka – minus the politeness.
Congrats, you have been conscripted to work for the Fatherland's border agency as an immigration inspector, which means you control the flow of some rather shifty folk. The entire game takes place in an austere booth – bar the screen for budget management at the end of each working day – where would-be migrants attempt to gain entry with their legit and decidedly not-legit paperwork, including passports, entry permits, ID cards, work permits and diplomatic passes.
It falls to you to wield the "Entry Granted" and "Entry Denied" stamps like Mjölnir because a significant portion of the candidates are out to hoodwink you. It starts off simply enough – do they have a valid passport? Does the picture match the face? Is the issuing city correct? Is the seal legitimate? And so on. Clocking discrepancies is the game.
The minimal environment somehow also manages to tell a story. As the working days wear by, terrorists gain entry and detonate themselves on the border. Shadowy organisations reach out, asking for lenience in letting agents slip through the net. It is up to you how you play it but you also have to be mindful of your family, who rely on your income to stave off cold, hunger and sickness in their state-issued apartment. They can perish and it'll be your fault.
With these developments, the entry process becomes ever more complicated, throwing in a flurry of additional papers to check and cross-reference for inconsistencies. With all the time in the world, it'd be a straightforward task, but the more you process, the more you make – though you receive nothing for anyone processed after the whistle has gone. This is how mistakes are made.
You get a small number of free passes on citations before your pay starts being docked. The pain is that inconsistencies can either be glaringly obvious or incredibly subtle. You can wave someone through, 90 per cent sure they're good to go, only to have the grating noise of a citation printing out as they cross the border – maybe to blow themselves up, smuggle contraband or carry out any number of insurgent deeds.
It's a bit like editing The Reg. Headlines, meh, could be better. Copy, good. Boring backend stuff, fine. Doot-doot-doot doot-doot-doot. You have mail. Every correction is a citation, and I have to go out back and give myself 40 lashes. Which is probably why I haven't been able to complete the story mode yet (too triggering). If you run out of funds – which is easy given the expense of food, rent and heating – you can be jailed for delinquency, though there are a number of other crimes that can end the game. Fortunately, you can branch off from a moment of your choice where things were running smoothly and continue a "new" game there.
It's definitely worth a peep, if only for its originality. Unlike Return of the Obra Dinn, the graphics are retro but deliberately ugly, which fits the imagined concrete prison of the city. Up top is the queue, booth and border – where you click the loudspeaker to usher another migrant in – and down below is the booth interior with your desk – where you shuffle all the papers about that need close inspection, finally bringing down the stamp that seals their fate. And while we enjoy poking fun at the Iron Curtain in western media, in this day and age the theme of Papers, Please hits ever closer to home.
To think that Pope conceived, designed, coded, wrote and even composed the music for both these games blows my puny mind. He's a real renaissance man whose existence is like a fist in the face of the bleating masses who would argue video games don't have the capacity to be considered art. ®