How minimal game design helps tell stories in Papers, Please

While the premise of Papers, Please might sound a bit heavy, its minimalist approach to game design helps reduce its heavy subject matter, while also helping tell better player stories.

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The premise for Papers, Please is rather dark: turn away poor, destitute people at your border if they don't have the right papers. And if they appear suspicious or undesirable, turn them away using more nefarious tactics. But if you're creator Lucas Pope, much of the game's heavy subject matter is alleviated thanks to its minimalist game design.

Pope tells Gamasutra that Papers, Please manages to straddle a delicate line between black-and-white decision making and an overtly preachy narrative. "I think a big part of what makes this possible is just the game's technical simplicity," he said. "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."

Papers, Please centers around a quick, streamlined process of approving immigrants, an idea that Pope says helps tell an individual story, based on their case-by-case choices. "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,'" Pope added. "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 adds that reducing the overall amount of dialogue allows players to use their imagination when reflecting on their story. Papers, Please is available now on PC and Mac.

Senior Editor

Ozzie has been playing video games since picking up his first NES controller at age 5. He has been into games ever since, only briefly stepping away during his college years. But he was pulled back in after spending years in QA circles for both THQ and Activision, mostly spending time helping to push forward the Guitar Hero series at its peak. Ozzie has become a big fan of platformers, puzzle games, shooters, and RPGs, just to name a few genres, but he’s also a huge sucker for anything with a good, compelling narrative behind it. Because what are video games if you can't enjoy a good story with a fresh Cherry Coke?

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    September 5, 2013 1:45 PM

    Ozzie Mejia posted a new article, How minimal game design helps tell stories in Papers, Please.

    While the premise of Papers, Please might sound a bit heavy, its minimalist approach to game design helps reduce its heavy subject matter, while also helping tell better player stories.

    • reply
      September 6, 2013 5:46 AM

      This is an excellent game. I play it all the time and believe it or not its very challenging. Ive gotten thrown in jail several times for different reasons.