Everything changed between Return of the Obra Dinn's demo and launch

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Return of the Obra Dinn, Lucas Pope’s nautical mystery, began as a series of design puzzles. Pope recently discussed the most memorable conundrums that he had to solve on the road to release on the GDC Twitch Channel and Gamasutra, one of the biggest of which was the challenge of scaling up from the 2014 demo. It predated Obra Dinn’s story and only featured four characters whose murders players had to solve. The finished game has 60. 

“I didn’t have any of the story written at that time, just kind of ‘OK, these guys will be fighting over something, and the captain ends up killing a bunch of them or whatever.’ And that worked for the progress I’d made at that time,” said Pope. “And I kind of stuck with this idea, that the game would be about figuring out how people died. I stuck with that for a long time, until I realized that that’s not hard to tell usually. You can usually see that pretty easily.”

Solving the crew’s deaths, while still part of the game, would eventually take a backseat to figuring out who the victims were. Pope wanted to create a mystery evocative of Clue and Moriarty, with players having to solve logic puzzles to identify the dead sailors. 

That change happened quite late into Obra Dinn’s design, Pope explained, and hammering out the narrative structure of the game proved to be tricky. 

“I decided to break it all up into chapters or disasters and lay everything out like that,” said Pope. “That structure was extremely difficult to figure out, which tied my hands a bit because I might have changed the design in a different way if I hadn’t put all that work into the story. But once I put all that work into the story, I was stuck with it, and I had to figure out a way to make it work.”

One of the ways Pope made it work was with the creation of a notebook. The notebook lets players cross-reference clues with information from the ship’s manifest, making it possible to find links between the names and the corpses. And if you think 60 identities are a lot to uncover, it could have been double that. 

A ship the size of the Obra Dinn would have had a crew of 120-200 people, which Pope realised he'd never be able to do. He whittled the number down to 80, but that still seemed too high. That number was reduced again, to the final tally of 60. And even when the number was settled on, Obra Dinn still didn’t have a story. Pope admitted that things would have probably been different if he’d started with the story first. 

“So if I’d worked on the story first, there’d be 12 people on the tiny sailboat, basically. But because I worked on the ship and the reality of what you would need to work on this ship, I started super high, and I felt like every time I cut it down I was going to compromise the game, not realizing that I was still going to kill myself to try and finish 60 people.” 

Andy was smitten in his Return of the Obra Dinn review, calling it “a stunningly clever thing and one of the best puzzle games on PC.”