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Award-Winning Game Designer Lucas Pope Explains Why He Won’t Make Sequels

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Award-Winning Game Designer Lucas Pope Explains Why He Won’t Make Sequels

In a world of excellent indie games created almost entirely by one person, Lucas Pope is not only one of the first, but also arguably the best.

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There have been a number of incredible solo gaming accomplishments such as Toby Fox’s Undertale, Thomas Happ’s Axiom Verge, and Eric Barone’s Stardew Valley, where each developer not only designed and programmed the game themselves, but also drew the art and wrote the music. However, at the time Pope released his first commercial success Papers, Please in 2013, there wasn’t really a precedent for games like this being made in the mainstream - outside of the world-bending Minecraft.

Since he gained success with his BAFTA-award-winning passport-stamping simulator (there’s much more to it than that of course, but spoilers), he went on to spend almost four years developing Return of Obra Dinn, in which you play as an insurance inspector discovering the fates of the 60 lost souls on the titular ship. Pope’s games play with the morality of actions, minimal yet interesting art styles, and mountains of paperwork. While none of that may sound like a recipe for success, the way his games work always manage to absorb surprise and delight.

Much like Obra Dinn I decided to conduct my interview with Pope backwards chronologically, starting with what he’s working on now. Mars After Midnight is a smaller and light-hearted game currently in development for the handheld oddity known as the Playdate. Drawn in the 3D 1-bit style similar to Obra Dinn, development is going smoothly, he says.

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“It’s coming along pretty good. It’s at the phase now, where a lot of my games end up, which is that I have a lot of the pieces of a game that I think maybe could be put together to make a good game, but I don’t know what that thing at the end is yet. And that’s how all my games go, so I’m not too worried yet. But maybe in a couple months I might panic.”

Following the trend I had to ask whether or not Pope would be sneaking more paperwork into his Martian-peeping simulator.

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“Oh god, I hope not. Don’t quote me but I have these things, where I really rely on them a lot; newspaper headlines or certain things in my games where they are so quick and easy for me, where I just put one in there and it just slots in so nicely with the way I build narratives. So who’s to say there won’t be a headline or two in this game? So far there’s nothing like that.”

With this latest game he wanted to focus on something not only for his kids, but also with the hardware. Having used the Playdate, and its quirky little crank, he doesn’t believe that he needs to add in the heavy moral elements of his previous works to create a fun experience. “I feel okay not going super deep with this one,” he says.

Pope’s games require the player to fill in the gaps of what they are not told or can’t see. In Papers, Please if you don’t think of your officer’s family as real, then it is easy to lay them to waste; whereas in Obra Dinn leaps in imagination are required in order to succeed. Many games hold your hand and lead you through the story, but Pope needs his games to take place outside of the computer or console.

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Return of the Obra Dinn came out in 2018 and won awards at both the BAFTAs and The Game Awards – check out its release trailer below

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“The disadvantages I see are when the picture that I’m trying to build in their head is totally wrong, or how they interact with the game. I don’t mean wrong as in right or wrong. I built the game assuming they would fill out the world in one way, and if that doesn’t quite match up then they’re gonna run into problems if their expectations won’t match up and they’ll run into trouble later.

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“But I have a lot of faith in the player's imaginations, you could say. I don’t know if that’s out of necessity because to me the game is that much richer without me having everything physically in the game.”

While we are building Pope’s worlds in our minds, it seems he himself is not. There were 60 people aboard the Obra Dinn and though the player has to thread together the story via three-second snapshots, Pope never did.

Return of the Obra Dinn / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909
Return of the Obra Dinn / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909

“It’s a little bit embarrassing to say no, I didn’t [have backstories for the characters]. I put this game together very mechanically. I knew I needed 60 names, so I took some crew rostas, and tried to find some interesting names from different places, wrote down some good names and tried to get the nationalities that would make an interesting crew. And I set that aside.

“When I was working on the actual modelling, I built up different features of the face, and wrote a script that combined them and mixed them up. I then clicked a button to find interesting faces. That was the seed for an interesting face, then I could edit it and fix things manually.

“I made 60 people like that knowing I needed a couple of people from Africa, America, a couple of people from Asia and things like that. I had a general idea of the mix that I needed, but I wasn’t building any backstories for anyone. I have the names and I have their looks separately, so even then they were not connected. It’s a basic tenet of how I make games. I stay super frosty, it all has to be peeled down to what is needed.”

While Obra Dinn is often considered Pope’s magnum opus - so far, at least - he personally prefers his previous commercial success Papers, Please. While no game is perfect, he sees more he would or could have done differently in his latter work.

Papers, Please / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909
Papers, Please / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909

“The concept is a little higher [in Papers, Please] - the design was stronger, it’s a much smoother ramp to get in. You get sucked into it as it grows more and more complex. Obra Dinn drops you in at the deep end, and starts you out pretty confused for a long time. Papers, Please is also very obscure at the beginning, but it’s asking you a very simple task, and you can do that simple task without understanding much more about the game. In Obra Dinn you have to go pretty far before it kind of clicks and you realise, ‘Now I see what I’m supposed to do.’”

One thing Pope wanted to impress upon me was just how important approachability and accessibility is to his work - and how the lack of approachability to Obra Dinn he considered one of its weakest points.

“One issue [with Obra Dinn] is just the approachability - moving around in the 3D environment [in a 1-bit style] was something that I am totally used to, but I can see how it’s very disorientating for some people.

Papers, Please has none of those problems. If you know how to use a computer you can play Papers, Please. You are just moving a cursor and that cursor is still on screen. So while there is a lot of high-level computer interaction, none of it is unique to Papers, Please. Not that Obra Dinn was special, it’s just a first-person game, you are already doing something that I feel most people who use a computer wouldn’t be experienced with.”

Return of the Obra Dinn / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909
Return of the Obra Dinn / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909

While Obra Dinn ends essentially the same way no matter how many fates you uncover, Papers, Please morphs depending on how you play. Of the 20 different endings only three are considered victories. However, I always wondered which Pope considered to be true.

“I’m wary of answering because this is one of those things where I don’t tell you what happens at the end of the game. What I will say is when I’m playing one of the things I like to do is to help EZIC (the resistance group in the game) screw up whatever is going on in Arstotzka, then leave at the last second. But there is no canon ending. If you think about as far as the game goes, what’s the ending that’s going to give you the best result? That’s the one that gives you the endless unlock code, you know, ignoring EZIC and doing whatever the state tells you to do.”

Thanking her in his acceptance speech when he won a BAFTA for Papers, Please in 2014, Pope developed his early work Mightier and Helsing’s Fire with his wife, game programmer Keiko Ishizaka. These days he develops games solo, and I wondered what role Ishizaka still held in his creative process.

“She’s more or less the producer. That’s in the sense of ‘my wife, the producer’. She kind of pokes and peeks in, she is the voice of sanity. She plays games, but she’s not a gamer, so it’s the perfect sense of perspective that I respond to. She really helps me understand the bigger picture when I’m working on a game. She’s a real level-headed element. She really helps me get out of my bubble, when I’m working on things too deeply.”

With his wife acting as the voice of reason, and having learned the art of cutting game elements from his days working at Naughty Dog on Uncharted and its sequel, Pope himself has never been interested in making a direct sequel to any of his games.

Papers, Please / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909
Papers, Please / Credit: Lucas Pope/3909

“It (not making sequels) is definitely intentional. It’s just that a sequel doesn’t interest me as much. I have other ideas that I would rather work on in that situation. Even when I think about making a game I think, ‘What would be something that someone else hasn’t done?’ Then I can work in a space that’s more interesting to me.

“Also, there’s a lot less to compare it against, it’s not like there were hundreds or thousands of document-checking games, or it would have been a lot harder for me to make Papers, Please. It gave me a lot more freedom and a lot more leeway to express myself when making that game.

“So if I decide to do a sequel to say Papers, Please, it’s going to first be compared to Papers, Please, but also all the games now which came out afterwards, which are kind of like Papers, Please. I may get to the point where I feel like, ‘I got a great idea for Papers, Please 2, I should work on that,’ in front of all these other ideas, [and] then maybe I will, but I’m not there yet.”

While Pope knows that people want to play things that they know, he hopes that they will also enjoy and try all the new ideas and games he puts out, too.

Featured Image Credit: Lucas Pope

Topics: Interview, Indie Games

Georgina Young
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