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Designing the bleak genius of Papers, Please

Papers, Please designer Lucas Pope talks designing the brilliant passport control simulation game that manages to be engaging, darkly funny, touching and bleakly sick-making in turns.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

September 3, 2013

8 Min Read

Lucas Pope took a number of uneventful trips through international border control stations, fascinated by the stamping and paper-shuffling. In what's to most a dull necessity, the game designer saw a fascinating opportunity: Instead of playing as common fiction's heroic spy, smuggler or subversive, what if you played as the bureaucratic inspector? Papers, Please, the game that emerged from that simple, even counter-intuitive concept, is brilliant on a mechanical level -- in order to earn enough to support their struggling family, the player needs to process as many travelers as they can in one day, an objective balanced against the stated goal of only admitting those who have their increasingly-complicated documents in order. Names, faces, issue and expiration dates all need to check out, and as the game adds in special regulations for unusual circumstances, it gets properly maddening. "The bureaucratic structure is something that fits naturally," Pope tells Gamasutra. "From a design perspective, that structure made it easy for me to fill out a complex set of gameplay-oriented rules and regulations."

A cog in the machine

Papers, Please has a pleasantly-tactile feel, from each day's opening with a coarse, clacking shutter to the definitive punch of a bright, haphazard stamp aligned over each passport. Beyond that, though, the game's real brilliance comes from the dystopic bleakness of its setting. You're an officer of the fictional nation of Artstozka, and all around you visual and tonal elements suggest a bleak, aging Soviet bloc. You get the day's news on the political climate from a newspaper's front page, and from dubiously-trustworthy supervisors -- the sort who'll pay you extra if you choose to detain potentally-fraudulent candidates for entry, not simply turn them away. The situation is muddy, and the player's constantly asked to consider the righteousness of the job: Should you let in a married couple that wants to emigrate together if his papers are in order and hers are not? What if he offers you a little bribe and your child is sick? Why have suicide terrorist attacks from the nation of Kolechia begun at the border, and should this lead you to profile Kolechians for random searches? What about when your own supervisors ask you to bend the rules for their gain? The player must balance these kinds of thoughts and decisions with the numbing repetition of processing passports, ID cards and work permits -- and the crawling unease at the sense of being part of The System in a war-torn universe. Having to subject potentially-innocent people to nude body-scans breeds a distinctly ill feeling. The setting, which excellently summons global tensions is inherited from one of Pope's previous games, The Republia Times. Made in 48 hours, it challenges the player to balance the interests of state and the truth as editor-in-chief of a newspaper. "Beyond the 'oppressive regime' trope, I tried to keep everything fairly generic," Pope says. "Using a fictional setting gave me a lot more freedom with the story, and I don't even know enough about real politics to include true facts. I also felt the game would've been clouded by pre-existing assumptions if it highlighted any specific injustice." There are over-arching narrative elements that thread through every Papers, Please playthrough, and so many branches within that the game has a stunning 20 endings. Pope implemented the story elements from the bottom up, beginning with the small interactions he presumed a typical inspector would incounter. "These are all things that I think are universal... you'd see them at U.S., Soviet or even Indonesian immigration," he says. "Building this list of interactions was one of the more fun parts of development -- any time I was away from the computer, I could quickly jot down some notes about an encounter and implement it later."

Scripted encounters, random encounters

Even more impressive are the way subtle narrative elements dovetail with random ones -- the game may ask you to look for a specific wanted individual, but the means of spotting that person are always different. Or, on a day when you're on guard for bomb threats, you may accidentally uncover a sex trafficker. "The structure is similar to Helsing's Fire, an iOS game I made together with my wife a few years ago," says Pope. "This time, I built a system that let me specify as much or as little information about each immigrant as I wanted. Anything that's not specified for a particular person is filled in with random data based on the current game rules. This is why, for example, some scripted immigrants' faces, names, et cetera will change between replays, but their dialog will stay the same. This system made it easy to interleave scripted encounters with fully or partially-random ones." Testing the random generation required Pope to write validation procedures that could create thousands of immigrants at a time -- that wasn't the hard part, he asserts. "The most difficult part, by far, was taking all the scripted interactions, rule changes, border attacks, night-time events, and longer story arcs, and combining them into both a sensible narrative and an effective sequence of gameplay progress. This part took weeks and countless rearrangements." Some reviewers have asked why there can't be yet more randomness, Pope says, with scripted encounters happening at different points in the game's successive days. He'd planned on making that possible, but the entire collection of interdependent elements was too delicate to allow further messing with the schedule. "Just as an example, I tried very hard to not introduce new rules through the bulletin on a day when someone (guard, supervisor, investigator) talks to you in the morning," he says. "In testing, I found that the bulletin is basically ignored when you've got someone to talk to right away, and that causes unintended confusion." The precision of the scheduling, then, is part of the art of training the player's focus. "I struggled with this for a long time," Pope says. "It got to the point where adding even one little encounter or rule would blow out all the scheduling for the rest of the game... the entire game teeters on this complicated network of dependencies. Although I laid it out by hand, it probably would've been possible to express these dependencies in a way that allowed the game to shuffle some events around."

Simplicity that serves the experience

Papers, Please excels as a holistic experience because of its ambiguity. Deliberately, players have precious little information about the nation they represent, nor those with which they are in conflict. You can detain people with fraudulent papers or who are smuggling contraband, but you don't have much idea about the process to which you're consigning them -- other than the haunting intrusion of a rifle's butt into your booth, the dull thud that follows. How sacred is the law? Are you doing the uncomfortable thing because that's truly what it takes to protect your country, or sheltering abusive systems? The game never feels preachy, nor black-and-white, straddling a dazzling spectrum of coarse, bleak color, and the player never feels in conflict with what "the game wants." "I think a big part of what makes this possible is just the game's technical simplicity," says Pope. "If there were gobs of 3D assets or voice overs or exciting cutscenes, it'd be a lot harder to maintain these nuances. You'd have to pick a few branches and go all out with just those." "Under the structure I ended up with, it was easy to add a little story arc here or encounter there that could resolve in several different ways based on the player's decisions and didn't necessarily seem 'good' or 'bad.' If you put enough of those together, the choices start to build up and you're left feeling like you took a more personal path that wasn't all good or all bad." Pope's work is just the latest example of how constraint and simplicity can be the ideal vehicle to create an emotionally-affecting game, in conflict with conventional wisdom about fleshy acting, robust AI or lots of "player choice" in the conventional sense (one playthrough of Papers, Please actually contains countless minute minute-to-minute decisions). "I also made a concerted effort to keep things vague and non-judgemental throughout the game," Pope continues. "The starkest example of that is with the family status screen at night. It's just a few dots with some text. Such a simple screen is pretty boring, but my goal was to leave the game family largely unspecified so the player could more easily project their own family onto them." "This follows through to the game's daytime encounters as well," he adds. "I worked hard to reduce the amount of dialog, keep things ambiguous, leave some things unresolved, and to rely on the player's imagination to fill in the blanks."

Bleak...but fun, too

Amid all these elements Papers, Please is fun -- fast-paced, engaging, even hooky, as the player balances the challenge of instantaneous performance (catch all the discrepancies in a document, quick!) with longer-term goals (watch for the mysterious activists and their tricky decoder papers!). And it's even funny, sometimes -- earnest, bewildered locals, a doddering, agreeable old drug smuggler. And touching: If you can afford to buy your son crayons for his birthday, he'll draw a picture in praise of his Dad, drawn heroically wielding a gun to protect the country. Oof. Pope's been a little disappointed by reviews that emphasize the "not-fun-ness" of Papers, Please with its demanding tasks and depressing subject matter. "I hope that people simply enjoy playing," he says. "After that, I'm not sure... if players come away with a little more balance in how they perceive the intentions of others, that'd be okay, too." "I've never had even the slightest trouble with immigration and I've traveled a lot, especially in Southeast Asia," Pope reflects. "I think that helps explain why the game tries to establish empathy with the difficult job that inspectors have. If I'd been mistreated, the game might've ended up a little different.

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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