Return of the Obra Dinn’s Creator Reminisces on Getting Its Iconic Style Just Right

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Return of the Obra Dinn is making its console debut a year-to-the-day after its original release on the PC and Mac. In honor of the occasion, Obra Dinn creator Lucas Pope revisited the inspiration and experimentation behind Return of the Obra Dinn’s stark 1-bit art style in a new blog post.

Writing on the Official PlayStation Blog, Pope talks about how, after embarking on Return of the Obra Dinn’s development in 2014, he only realized he had a major graphics problem on his hands less than a year before release. Shortly after completing Papers, Please, Pope settled on the Macintosh Plus-inspired 1-bit style for Obra Dinn and then focused on building out its environment, story, and challenging mystery-unraveling gameplay until they were polished… for about four whole years.

“After working on non-graphical stuff for so long, I took a moment to reflect on what I had with the visuals,” writes Pope. “It wasn’t great.”

Every pixel in Return of the Obra Dinn is either black or white (or dark/light if you enable one of Obra Dinn’s other evocative 1-bit colorways). To achieve shading with only two colors, Pope implemented a dithering solution early on to create the illusion of shades of gray.

After lots of playtesting, Pope realized that his dithering solution, while great in stills or when played in a small window, was too chaotic in motion at fullscreen. All throughout the screen, pixels would swim or flicker with the slightest camera move, making for an uncomfortable playing experience. Pope tried a few other dithering patterns, but came away dissatisfied. “This looked pretty cool,” Pope writes, “but diverged from the original vision of the game so much that I felt there must be a better way.”

For dead-end solutions, these other dither patterns do look quite nice. | Lucas Pope

The dithering technique that shipped with Return of the Obra Dinn tries “to unify the 3D camera with the game’s 2D dither patterns,” and indeed, pixels don’t scoot around constantly anymore. Pope doesn’t go into more technical detail beyond that on the PlayStation Blog, but that’s because he already has. At the TIGSource forums, Pope kept a detailed developer’s log on Return of the Obra Dinn. If you want the full technical explanation on Pope’s solution, I suggest you go there and keep a Wikipedia tab handy.

It’s nice, though, on the day of Obra Dinn’s console release to see a concise rundown of the game’s graphical nuance from the creator himself. As of today, Return of the Obra Dinn is now available for the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. It made number 14 on USG’s Top 20 Games of 2018 list.

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