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Lucas Pope on Making Games Out of Restrictions

The creator of Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn discussed tool creation in Unity and explained why he's not worried about AI for now.

Image credit: Lucas Pope | Papers, Please

Lucas Pope is a unique game developer with titles like Papers, Please and Return of the Obra Dinn in his professional portfolio. It's interesting to see how such unusual games are made, and Denfaminicogamer found out what drives the developer.

Pope works with a concept of limitations, which bloom into games. He sets challenges for himself and sees if he can overcome them. These constraints need to be the ones major studios wouldn't do.

"The constraints I set for Papers, Please were 'Can you play a game by just playing the role of an immigration officer and checking documents?' and for Obra Dinn – 'Can you play a modern 3D game with 1-bit graphics? Can you make it?' I thought about how much fun I could have within these constraints," he said (translated by Google.)

Just like with Obra Dinn, the development process is a puzzle in itself. Pope starts with an idea, which becomes more complicated the more he works on it. For example, he initially didn't know how much work Obra Dinn' system for retracing memories would be but he knew he could make a good game with this idea. "However, if I had seen the actual amount of work at that point, I might have stopped making it," he joked.

With Papers, Please, the developer came up with the concept of simply moving documents on a desk: "I realized that just moving documents is fun, so I was convinced that I could create a game based on this."

Image credit: Lucas Pope | Papers, Please

Gradually, he added inconsistencies and problems in the documents and then created characters so the gameplay wouldn't stagnate at the "find the difference" level. Pope's imagination took him further, connecting characters with the papers they could bring and then a whole political plot.

The same with Obra Dinn – he first made the minimum number of characters required to operate the ship but it slowly got out of hand. 

"There is a 'mystery' to the production process. Even if you can't find the answer to the mystery right away, I feel that you should believe that there is something out there and focus on thinking about how you can make things work using what you have."

The developer believes traditional games lack this mystery because all the elements are first listed as specifications, and you can clearly trace how the game was being constructed. Pope's games are more unpredictable in this regard.

Moreover, he is sure game mechanics have to be introduced as the story progresses. "You can't just implement a scanner that strips people naked for no reason." But if there is a terrorist attack or smuggling, this is a different situation. Pope wants to give players the freedom to make decisions and face the consequences.

"Rather than explaining everything myself, I want to overturn the story in the players' minds and create new developments."

Overall, he thinks people love his games because they are different from what players are used to.

Image credit: Lucas Pope | Papers, Please

Games require various tools to operate, and Pope confessed that he likes tool development more than game development. Creating tools is about 40% of his work, and the remaining 60% is spent programming games, and Unity is pretty accommodating for the task.

"For example, in Return of the Obra Dinn, we used Unity for the map layout, but without actually running the game, you could just move things or press buttons. Being able to reinstall assets was also convenient.

"For me, tools are a kind of solution that helps me when something goes wrong."

With the overwhelming presence of AI in nearly every aspect of game development, one might expect it to help Pope, but it's not true. He is not thinking about using AI tools in his games, "at least for now." While his latest game, Mars After Midnight, is focused on procedurally generated faces and AI could help here, the creator says it is still dependent on human prompts, just like his procedural system, so he doesn't feel that AI can help him at the moment. It is good at solving existing problems, but Pope is interested in solutions to unknown problems in his own style, and he enjoys finding them. "So maybe it's just that I don't need AI due to my personality."

"What I think is important ... is what kind of emotions we can create in people's hearts. ... I believe that my creativity will definitely make a difference."

Read the full interview here (in Japanese) and join our 80 Level Talent platform and our Telegram channel, follow us on InstagramTwitter, and LinkedIn, where we share breakdowns, the latest news, awesome artworks, and more.

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