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Road to the IGF: Lucas Pope's Papers, Please

Continuing our series of Road to the IGF interviews with nominees, we talk to Lucas Pope about Papers, Please, the piquant border control simulator nominated for multiple accolades.

Leigh Alexander

February 4, 2014

6 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. Continuing our Road to the IGF series of interviews with nominees, we talk to Pope about Papers, Please, nominated for multiple awards -- the Excellence in Design category, the Nuovo category, and the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

What's your background in making games?

The first games I made were on the Mac Plus using HyperCard, which was the best. From there I moved to making small C64 stuff when it was long past its prime. After leaving college, I started a game development company, Ratloop, with friends in the late '90s. papers please 1.jpgWe struggled through a few years before going our separate ways. I ended up working in LA, first at Realtime Associates on serious games, then at Naughty Dog on the first two Uncharted games. I've always felt a draw to work on smaller experimental games,and that's basically what I'm doing now.

What development tools did you use to make Papers, Please?

Papers, Please is written in Haxe using OpenFL. I work on a Mac and my general toolset is Photoshop, Audacity, Sublime Text, Illustrator, and TexturePacker. IDEA IntelliJ has half-decent Haxe support, which I used mostly to get the syntax highlighting and step-debugging in Flash builds. I also made a good number of custom tools in Haxe, Python, Javascript, and probably some other toolsets I'm forgetting.

How much time did you spend working on the game?

From the first mockups to the initial release in August, it was around 9 months. I've been working on it non-stop since then though so I'm now at 14 months and counting.

How did you come up with the concept?

I generally try to keep an eye out for interesting game ideas in everyday life, and at some point I'd done enough international traveling to start noticing the rigamarole that immigration inspectors do when checking your documents. I thought that whatever correlations they were doing could be turned into some fun game mechanics.

The sound and visual design really help build the experience -- it's dark and coarse-looking, and the finality of the rubber stamp noise, or the pinging of little keys and things on your work tray are really tactile. How did you create these tonal elements?

A large part of the production was dictated by my lack of resources. For example, I knew that I couldn't fill the entire game with music. So instead I focused on getting the right mix of ambient and triggered sounds in the booth to make it feel natural. The same is true of the graphics. The low resolution was dictated by my limitations, but the result is that I could create visuals and especially animations very quickly. I chose muted colors and stripped back a lot of the details to try to express the bleak mood and to reduce extraneous visual clutter.

How much of the experience is scripted versus procedural? It seems like that was a challenging balance to find.

The general flow of the game from day to day, along with 2 or 3 immigrants per day are all scripted. Most of the immigrants are procedurally generated based on the current day's rules. Coming up with the scripted encounters was quite fun; the hard part was arranging everything to carry the game through 30 days without too many dry spots or unnecessary confusion.

The Soviet-bloc feel is really evocative, and it's possible to recognize our own experience of international travel and sociopolitical anxiety in the game, but at the same time, nothing feels 'ripped from the headlines.' What made you decide on the traits of this fictional world?

The world of Arstotzka and surrounding area grew with the game's requirements. The only thing I knew at the start was that there were two bordering countries (Arstotzka and Kolechia) with a strained relationship. Everything else was written as I went, usually to introduce a new mechanic or explain a character's motivation. papers please 2.jpgThis is where keeping everything fictional really helped. In the end though I really didn't need to say much about the world; the player's imagination handles most of the heavy lifting.

Did you have any particular influences in making the game?

There's nothing specific, but I did base many of the events on what I know as common spy or political thriller tropes. The game concept focuses on approaching things from a different direction than usual so a big part of the design was taking commonly-seen events and turning them around to put you on the other side. You're not the hero slipping through the border, but the guard checking documents. You don't make the secret documents drop, you just hold on to them for the handler to pick up. You don't tackle the terrorist and drag him away, you just press the DETAIN button to call the guards. Etc.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you've especially enjoyed?

Unfortunately I've only had the chance to play a few. I love The Stanley Parable for how far it steps outside typical games, all while staying as a [first-person] walker. I can't remember another game that made me reflect on the idea of choice so effectively. DEVICE 6 really impresses me with its concept and execution; it's just beautiful. And the design in 868-HACK is brilliant. That's my go-to iOS game on the bus or train.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Seems pretty healthy to me. I think even calling it a "scene" isn't quite right since that implies something small. Game creation is becoming so ubiquitous that the exception now seems to be the triple-A pressed-disc game, not the small independently-developed one.

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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