I really like Papers, Please. I’ve played it myself, and watched several playthroughs by different people on YouTube. This last week I was also able to watch my friend play it, and while looking at it from a design perspective certain things started to pop out at me. I really enjoyed noticing little details about the game that make it better and considering the things that the designer, Lucas Pope, probably had to think about and design in order to make the game as effective as it is. Papers, Please is by no means a perfect game, but it is very well-made and I greatly appreciated the design decisions that went into making it the game that it is as I looked it over again. These are the things that I detected and wanted to write about.
The time you’re given on any particular day to process people and their documents is very purposefully managed, and balanced by the events that take place each day. Sometimes days are cut short by terrorist attacks (and you won’t know what days those are unless you’ve played before). These attacks are meant to catch you off guard and make it harder to make enough money, pushing you further into potentially needing to compromise your ethics in order to keep your family safe, warm, and fed. Additionally, on days that NPC dialogue or special events spend a significant amount of your time, the gameplay will sometimes be made easier to offset your lost time and allow you to process enough people to stay afloat. For example, on Day 19 Jorji visits again and wastes your time with a long dialogue interaction, and this just happens to be during the start of a ban on travel from Impor. Being able to automatically reject people travelling from Impor saves you a lot of time, so you end up processing about as many people as you typically would. This restriction is lifted the very next day, and the newspaper even contains a little joke about people not knowing why the ban came and went so quickly. Papers, Please is clearly intentional about how much time it allows you to have to make progress, and only takes time away from you when it wants to put pressure on you, which I thought was really clever.
As a game that contains many different endings, it’s particularly useful that it allows players to restart days or go back to other points in the game so that they can make changes to the way they played or keep a more watchful eye out for special events. I appreciated this feature of the game, because without it I don’t think I would be interested enough in trying to get different endings. The game is long, and the vigilance you need to maintain for each segment of gameplay can get tiring after a while. So after finishing the game it makes sense that, instead of needing to play over the entire thing in order to see a different ending, players can just go back to a pivotal day where they know they could have made a different choice or avoided a mistake and play the rest of the game out from there. They’re also labelled by the events described in the newspaper that the player reads at the start of each day, which is a fun and unique way to make it easy for the players to know where to come back to. The game didn’t need to include this, but I think the choice to make that a part of the game is very beneficial.
Another major feature of the game is the player’s need to manage their space effectively. The size of that space, the size, shape, and number of the objects that take up that space, their use, and the information provided on them are all details that the designer needed to consider when creating and tuning the core gameplay loop (processing one person’s documents). The documents players need to inspect are easy to read for the first time. The information is laid out well and labelled clearly without any crowding, and the labels aren’t as prominent on the documents as the individual’s actual information. This makes a single document easy to digest on its own, especially once you’ve seen it multiple times. The difficulty comes in the fact that you have a lot of different documents to sift through and a limited work space.
The last thing I’d like to talk about is the booth upgrade system in Papers, Please. Something to note here is that the game is completely playable without the upgrades (which afford you as a player things like hotkeys for pulling out your stamps and opening inspection mode). They do, however, improve the player experience enough that those who choose to invest in buying them with the in-game money feel that they’re worth it. With each new document introduced, and each new rule or restriction on travel into Arstotzka, things get more and more chaotic for the player. They have to be dealing with a lot of little things all at the same time, paying close attention to each of them. Eventually this builds up to the point where if they can simplify just one thing, purchase a slight convenience, it feels worthwhile (and improves their efficiency). I think the game is much better for having these upgrades available, and I think their apparent usefulness highlights the satisfaction that one can get from making their hectic world just a little bit smoother and quieter.
So, to sum up, these are a few elements of Papers, Please that I feel its intentional design made more effective. Even little details like some of the ones described can contribute to the larger success of a game in evoking the feelings it means to, creating its intended atmosphere, or making the game more enjoyable for its players.