Translating Papers, Please: analysis

Admittedly, we ended up translating " Papers, Please " through a stroke of luck. But we worked hard for it!

About one year ago I was preparing what has then become the LocJAM translation contest, which would feature a previous game by Lucas Pope called Republia Times .

As mentioned in the (great) postmortem Lucas wrote about localizing the game, we met at the Indie stream party held in Sony’s building during Tokyo Game Show 2013.

My main goal then was to get guidance for the daunting task of turning Republia Times , a  flash game which only supported English, into a pick-up-and-play platform for aspiring French-German-Japanese-Italian-Spanish translators (with limited technical skills, and weird alphabets).

Needless to say I loved Papers, Please . I mean, I liked Republia Times so much that I was building a whole international contest around localizing it, it’s hardly surprising.

So, when I finally met Lucas, we ended up talking about potential pitfalls in localizing Papers, Please , from the randomized genders of some characters, to the very large number of names and papers to be kept 100% consistent.

At the end of the conversation, I just mentioned that I would be happy to give more ideas and suggestions if needed.

But I didn’t know two things:

The first one is that Lucas doesn’t simply face challenges: he carpet-bombs them into submission with a barrage of brilliant tools (spoiler: just look at his localization tool for Papers, Please ). That chat was all the feedback he needed.

The second one was that a few months later I would ask him help with Japanese fonts for Republia Times (he saved LocJAM’s bacon multiple times) and he asked us if we were available for translating Papers Please.

Volunteer for IGDA, guys, it clearly gives good karma.

What is Papers, Please - the easy part

First of all, the basics:

Product description: Papers, Please is A Dystopian Document Thriller developed by indie game developer Lucas Pope, focusing on the emotional toll of working as an immigration officer, deciding whom to let in and whom to exclude from entering the fictional communist country of Arstotzka

*Story: Ever taken an international flight to a foreign country and felt nervous passing through the immigration checkpoint? Papers, Please *aims to turn that around and put you in the role of immigration inspector. Instead of working in a nice modern airport booth, you’re assigned to the Ministry of Admission in the war-torn dystopian nation of Arstotzka.

The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

Rating: Not rated, but equivalent to PEGI 16 for violence. We don’t see actual torture, but people do die in (pixelated) graphical ways. Language wise, we have two instances of “fuck” (Stupid fucking terrorist. What the fuck!), for the rest it’s mostly scatological swearing (“It is still a shit-hole. As before.”, “What is this amateur shit?”, “But what is other shit hanging here?”)"

Platform: Mac, Windows and Linux but everything is always said “in character” (mouse buttons are never mentioned, we only have two instances of “double click”)

Length limits:  All text has strict space requirements. Abbreviate where necessary. If the text absolutely cannot fit when localized, leave it in English.

Studying the game itself

All the above is true and useful, but it really doesn’t narrow down the true nature of the game.

In my experience, the most effective localizations start from the game, learning how it works and interacts with its text. And then build from there.

Papers, Please is quite special in this regard, because you can follow its creation pretty much day by day thanks to its very detailed development blog.

All I had to do for preparing our style guide was to group the different topics together.

Everything you see has been written and published directly by Lucas, I’ve just added headers and underlined some passages for our convenience.

Sorry if it’s a bit long, but even after reviewing it I must admit that all its parts were very useful for our work. Let’s say that it’s worth sharing as is for documentation alone, but feel free to skim to the next chapter if you want!


From the many times I’ve gone through immigration in the past few years. The anxiety as a foreigner and comfort as a native returning home got me thinking about the whole process and how there’s probably enough there for a game. Also inspired by various spy movies where passing through immigration is often a critical moment.

Going through airport immigration is always a tense experience and I thought the whole setup could be molded into something fun. There’s tension, documents, suspicion, spies, terrorists, empathy, etc. All kinds of elements that mix together well to build game mechanics and tell a story

I have some opinions [about politics] but they’re not particularly strong and I’m intentionally trying to not politicize the game, My goal is more to connect players with the difficult decisions an immigration inspector has to make. The focus is on the low-level task of trying to manage a job and a family when the right thing to do isn’t so clear.


My priority is basically: make it fun, then make it mean something. It was only after I felt the core document-comparison mechanics in “Papers, Please” were fun that I started thinking about how to take it further. Limiting the player’s story influence to approve, deny, and detain helps with keeping the focus on the OCD document stuff. The setup itself is fertile ground for tough choices and I’m just lucky enough that the gameplay balances it out.

Part of my goal for this game is to do a lot with very little. It’s basically a single-screen game with a mostly-static interface. I’ve worked out enough of the story to think that I can make a good game using only the elements that are already there. That means I probably won’t add new modes like night-time duty, walking-to-work, or pulling-guns-on-entrants.


Just like real life, you’ll have to decide if it’s worth flipping through the rulebook looking for a specific rule, or sending a slow telex query to check a name. This keeps things simple too; no need for a special hud or an explanation of what does or doesn’t cost time. >> TIME COSTS TIME <  <

Your "score" will actually be your money. Some less-than-honest applicants can offer you money up front, or the promise to mail cash to you later in exchange for a quick approval. This will give you some non-altruisitic incentive to let the bad ones through.

The money system could also nicely tie in to the overall progression. Let’s say you receive a daily salary from the Ministry based on performance. Each day you lose a little money due to living expenses. Your current income represents your wealth bracket, of which there are several. The story and game progresses as you move up the brackets.

Your small salary as an inspector is barely enough to squeak by so you’ll have some tough choices to make about how to spend your money.

Although a single night screen from one day looks pretty stark, your family’s status will change and progress throughout the game. If your uncle is sick too long without medicine he’ll die. Or his medicine costs will go up each day. Or maybe your son’s birthday is coming up and he wants a new toy. Skip your uncle’s medicine for a day and you can afford the toy. Or, as you mention, a new apartment with lower rent/heating costs is available for a fee. The choices you make on this screen will have lasting effects and you’ll need to be careful about how you spend your money.


I think some of an immigration inspector’s anxiety comes from not knowing what happens to the immigrants they process every day. In Papers Please there will be immediately visible consequences in some cases (terrorist bomber). But in other cases the person will just pass through and you won’t know what happened

In the beta, you can see the not-yet-functional overwatch light on the stamp bar. It wasn’t going to be explained until much later, but the overwatcher worked in shifts. When this light was on, he was watching; if it turned off, he wasn’t. If you wanted to approve someone with a mistake on their passport, you could avoid a citation by waiting until the light went out to quickly stamp/return the documents.

So that was all well and good; lots of potential. I really like this kind of subversion of expectations, where the rules change suddenly or the player is faced with something unexpected and has to change their thinking.

After working through a few scenarios though, I was left overall with a worse game than before. The moment the script flips is all well and cool but it’s at the cost of everything before and after. If the overwatcher works in obvious shifts then all the sob story immigrants just become a case of waiting a few seconds for the light to go out. It changes the focus from the interesting stuff to watching for a light to turn off.

I like that encounter because even though he (or she) is a dick, the docs are in order so you have to approve entry. I imagine there’s a fair bit of those teeth-gritting moments for real immigration inspectors. I stamp the passport all crooked in those cases.


The game is set in the alternate 1980, a communist and low-tech 80’s

I’ve been writing a bunch of the generic question and response dialog recently. Initially I authored it to flow naturally with proper English grammar but the game lost much of its Eastern-European feel. Now I’m trying rougher, less fluent English and it’s a little better: "I’ll stay for three months." becomes "I stay three months." Pretty subtle but I was surprised at how the fluent English destroyed some of the mood. I hope this works better.

The low level day-to-day stuff is random within parameters; the story is scripted.

I want to front-load some cool stuff to hook the player, expand on longer stories in the middle, add new elements to maintain interest, and ramp things up to a climax at the end.

During the entire development I collected and implemented small encounters or mechanics. Coming up with these was really fun; spy document handoff, nosy reporter, time bomb defusing, corrupt guard, etc. The task of tying all that together with a logical progression and interesting story was not as fun. I wanted the gameplay to evolve at a good pace but also to motivate each new mechanic with a story element. And with lots of these things to lay out, it’s also important to avoid having too many things happen at once that can misdirect or confuse the player.

[The] economy simulator (a QA tool that allows to only focus on money and story mechanics) was one of my more useful tools made for the game. The stuff I learned with it fed back into the story layout to let me know when it would be good to add a bribery or other money-affecting event. The niece event was laid out this way. I saw a dip below zero on one day and came up with the story for her to appear with her mom’s savings as relief.

"Papers, Please" will be the third game where I use newspaper headlines to relay story points. Can’t resist. The newspaper headlines format is a great way to update the player without much reading.


There’s 20 endings in all, which is honestly way too many. Adding a new ending became a logical and elegant way to handle all the different things the player could do. 12 of the endings are considered "early" in that they appear before the 31 days are up. The remaining 8 are attainable at the end of day 31. Which ending you get is dependent on the decisions you make during the days and nights. The branching save system makes it easy to go back and try different things.

When you and your family escape to Obristan after day 31, you were supposed to play this minigame again while passing through the Obristan checkpoint as an immigrant. You’d go through an interactive sequence of waiting in line, approaching the counter from the other side, giving the inspector your docs, and sweating it. This was a nice "tables have turned" payoff for the entire game.

Eventually, I decided that the best approach for the game endings was a generic system that could be used for everything. The picture-with-text system used in the intro worked great for that and was much easier to implement. I restructured the Obristan immigration sequence using this much simpler system and kinda liked it.

It also lined up better with my neutral treatment of the endings. Adding a special minigame just for the Obristan escape ending would’ve given it extra weight, implying that it was more correct than any of the other day-31 endings; which wasn’t the case.

Once the image+text style from the intro was recycled for the endings I had a good system for adding endings easily. This had a bigger effect than I expected. Now it made more sense production-wise to allow the player to do more things with more consequences. Instead of carrying player decisions through the entire game I could terminate things early with an ending. Or decisions that did carry through could have their own unique variation of a later ending. It sounds like a cheap trick but honestly the alternative was to not have these decision points at all


-  *[QUESTION] Why there is a small tutorial before the no paper guy?* 

Don’t feel bad, my design is still failing here and lots of people still miss this.

The problem is the conceptual change from: “Get the docs, check em out, inspect docs for fun” to: “Get nothing, inspect certain rulebook rule to proceed”

Some people make this leap no problem. For others it’s so far off the radar as to be nonexistent. It even looks like a bug and once that happens, brain over.

-  ** [QUESTION]* Why you can't call in new applicants from your desk? *

I think it’s important to make the player look up to the top area every once in a while to click the booth. This is mainly why I put the button there (instead of keeping it on the desk).

-  ** [QUESTION]* Why the sniping? *

Trust me, you will want to pull the trigger and it will feel good when you hit your target. I’ve worked out a story arc that’s deeply integrated with the sniping. This is my favorite arc so far so the matter is completely settled in my mind.

-  ** [QUESTION]* Why applicants are seen from a tilted angle? *

Unlike nice places where the inspector sits at your height, in Artstotzka inspectors sit high above hopeful immigrants in order to maintain a downward gaze. IOW there’s a small step up to reach the booth. I like the hostility of the shutters.

-  ** [QUESTION]* Why do you ask Calensk if he's a spy? *

T here’s a secret document hand-off encounter early in the game.

You get handed two identical documents and need to keep them straight.

Implementing this was easy but there was no clear place to put it in the game.

The event involves a bulletin callout, 2 travelers (the spy and his follower), and 2 documents. It’s a pretty heavy event actually because once you read the bulletin, you’re on the lookout for the first spy and his follower; it somewhat consumes the player’s headspace.

This meant that I didn’t want it to overlap with any other days where you have an important bulletin message, when you’re expecting someone specific, or when you have another document handoff. It finally wound up on the same day you meet Calensk.

Now the problem is that as soon as you read the bulletin about a spy coming, this military-looking guy walks up. Naturally you’d think he was the spy. If I had any other choice I would’ve moved this encounter or Calensk’s intro but out of the 31 days there was no other place.

I ended up just letting these events overlap but made one small dialog addition to clear up any confusion. When Calensk walks in for the first time, the inspector asks "Are you the spy?", to which he responds "What? No". Ship it.

-  *Why a line says “no luggage allowed”?* 

Baggage inspection was removed from gameplay

-  *Why the shutter?* 

Removed gameplay Normally I’d remove any vestiges of a cut feature but in this case I left the shutter switch in. It’s a fun little thing to role play and it comes in handy for triggering a hint early in the game. I still get comments about the pointlessness of this switch though. Maybe I should’ve removed it.

-  *Why taking passports?* 

Passport confiscation is a critical end-game revelation. Taking someone’s passport is a clear escalation on the things-are-getting-serious scale. This sets up the scenario of having your own family’s passports taken and leads directly into the end game.

From a mechanics and progression perspective, I found there was a lot more impact if the confiscation drawer was introduced for the purpose of taking passports.

What is Papers, Please - the tough part

Now that we have all the elements, we can finally answer the question: What is Papers, Please ?

First and foremost, it’s an addictive game, based on abnegation and grinding.

The more you get into it, the more your world vanishes into the almost tactile pleasure of taking documents, placing them on your desk, comparing dates/places/seals and then neatly stamping them.

The endless mode is there to prove this irresistible appeal of bureaucracy.

On top of that, we have the implicit story written by our own choices and morals. You are a small cog in the big bureaucratic machine, " trying to manage a job and a family when the right thing to do isn’t so clear ".

Will you let that refugee pass despite a missing document, or will you save those credits in order to buy a birthday present for your child? Will you swallow your pride and accept a bribe from a shady character, or will you tell your family that tonight you can’t afford dinner?

On top of that, we have the explicit story written by the author, carving a path through your daily activities.

And the main lesson of the study above is that said story plays a much different role than most assume.

It is there to introduce new mechanics, like new documents and procedures.

It is there to help you behind the scenes, like offering a bribe or another money-affecting event when players are likely to be in a tough spot.

It is there to structure the experience in a satisfying arc, with the well-being of your family being at stake in the end.

What it isn’t there for is providing a message. Not only the game is declaredly non-political, it strives to be as neutral as possible.

This is most evident in the endings: while the Obristan escape can be perceived as "the good" ending by most, Lucas chose to portray it exactly like every other one.

Fleeing with your family abroad (using money lent from a drug smuggler), bringing in a revolution (letting terrorists in and poisoning adversaries), serving your country faithfully (despite it being a hateful dictatorship)… the choice is yours.

There is no black or white, but you are free to pick your shade of grey.

The language

When you open the translation tool (more on this later), the first thing you see is the following guidelines

- The game is set in a fictional universe. Don't use words, events, or names specific to real places. The game world is modeled after Eastern Europe but it is not Russia/USSR. Don't use the word "comrade" or its translated equivalent.
- Use "foreign-style" grammar for speech. Use plain legible (native) grammar for documents. Keep dialog short and concise.

and later on

- Notes from EZIC. All uppercase with stilted speech. Use '-' or carriage returns to separate sentences. Stay brief.
- Avoid too much personality or uniqueness here since these lines may be repeated often by different travelers.

In other words, all your dialogues have to be short and concise and use broken foreign-style grammar.

Ok! Here we go!
Glory to Arstotzka!
The greatest country!
***Where is your passport? ***
Arstotzka so great, passport not required.
***A passport is required. ***
Ok, ok. I hear you.
I come back again.

While most characters are randomized and thus devoid of personality or uniqueness.

***What is the purpose of your trip? ***
Visiting friends.
***Duration of stay? ***
I stay a few weeks.
***These names do not match. ***
It must be a mistake. The document is valid.

And the only areas you are allowed a bit more leeway… are the crushingly bureaucratic manual and bulletin.

The rulebook has been updated with information regarding confiscation policy. Confiscate all Arstotzkan passports from residents living in ALTAN district.Travelers may still be granted entry if passport is confiscated and no other rules are violated. PASSPORT SEIZURE slips will be issued to allow entry or denial without a passport.
A break-in at M.O.A. offices may have compromised our document sealing plates. Nothing important was stolen but intelligence suggests counterfeiters have already begun forging official Arstotzkan documents.

The more we keep sentences short and neutral, the more the player can focus on the gameplay and the moral dilemmas.

The more we keep them minimal, the more space the player will have to fill the void with their imagination.

It all makes perfect sense within the framework above.

But now we have a problem: how are you supposed to make an interesting and enjoyable translation when you are pretty much forbidden from using rich and creative writing?

The "slavonic" accent

The first element we used for giving flavor to the text is the slavonic accent.

Now, accents in videogames are usually a shortcut for characterization.

The real-life stereotypes associated with a certain country will brush off on the characters, so that a "cockney" character will coded as brash but kind, while a "Jamaican" one will be cheerful but mysterious and so on.

In Papers, Please we think that it acts like a filter. " This is not the world you know ", it says, " Everything is different, from the names we use to the language we speak, so don’t bring your preconceptions here. Use your head ".

Alas, while it is very light in English, just dropping a few words here and there, it had to be reinvented into something much more defined for Italian.

Going for a cartoonish accent would have been completely against our goals, so we went for the most realistic model you can possibly imagine.

Maus by Art Spiegelman Maus by Art Spiegelman

«Affermare che nel caso di Maus la bellezza del testo risiede proprio nelle parole di Vladek e nel suo linguaggio sgrammaticato potrebbe sembrare un paradosso, tuttavia sono proprio quelle parole e quel linguaggio così arduo da riprodurre che trasmettono l’essenza del personaggio e la gamma di emozioni che scaturiscono dal racconto della sua vita.»

«To claim that, in the case of Maus, the beauty of the text lies specifically in the words of  Vladek and in his ungrammatical language may sound like a paradox. However, it’s precisely those words and that language, so arduous to recreate, that transmit the essence of the character and the gamut of emotions that spring from the account of his life

PREVITALI Cristina, «Nota del traduttore» in Maus by Art SPIEGELMAN

Not much to add, really. The Italian translation of Maus is a master class in creating an accent that is at the same time readable, realistic and respectful.

Following its pattern, we opted for

- Leaving out a few definite and indefinite articles (not all of them, not consistently, but especially when it comes to prepositions and possessives: "prima della guerra" &gt; "prima di guerra", "presero i nostri documenti" &gt; "presero nostri documenti")
- Switching a few prepositions around or adding/removing them (again, not consistently)
- Separating pronominal suffixes from the verb: "è bello avervi qui" &gt; "è bello avere voi qui");
- Simplifying  verbal tenses and moods (replacing gerunds with present tenses, past tenses into past simple/imperfect, subjunctive/conditional into indicative - but without eccess "Vorrei che voi andaste" &gt; "Io volevo che voi andate", not "Io voleva che voi va" or worse still "Io volere che voi andare").

The end result is a speech pattern that is recognisably "foreign" but not completely broken, like you would expect, for example, from an eastern caregiver who lived many years in Italy.

And ideally, something that will soon become "transparent", almost readable like a normal text, while retaining its specific flavor.

The terminology

The second tool we used to give flavor to the text is terminology.

As you can expect, the game contains a lot of bureaucratic terms: Arstotzka Ministry of Admission, access permit, id supplement, Ministry of labor, grant of asylum, replacement inspector, information audit…

What may be less expected is that none of them match the usual US/UK terms.

While the satire of bureaucracy is always present (and often comes with a healthy dose of black humor), there are no direct jabs to real institutions.

Again, what we seem to have here is a filter that lets us see something we know and understand (immigration) in a new perspective.

You probably have an opinion about the Department of State and the green card. But what about the Ministry of Admission and the access permit?

In game terms, they are pretty much equivalent, but just changing names led you into reconsidering your opinion.

Now, as Wikipedia tells us, the Italian language is official in four countries. Within the Italian peninsula we have Italy itself and two microstates (San Marino and Vatican City) that don’t provide much language variety.

And then we have Switzerland with the Italian-speaking Canton Ticino.

Oh boy... Oh boy…

While Swiss-Italian and plain Italian use exactly the same grammar and terminology 99% of the time, some common terms get retranslated from French or German (the most spoken languages of the Federation) and thus take unexpected meanings.

To make an example, in Swiss-Italian, the " vignetta " is a compulsory seal you must buy in order to drive on highways. In plain Italian it’s a comic book panel.

So you are reading a perfectly straightforward description of Swiss roads, and all of a sudden it tells you that you must absolutely buy the latest comic book panel and glue it on your windshield if you don’t want to be fined. It’s the law, pal.

Linguistically, it’s like coming back home and your mom has suddenly started to smoke Cuban cigars, for totally unexplained reasons . It’s the Twilight zone.

While not so extreme, the terminology used by the Swiss-Italian customs gave us a perfect platform for achieving that "parallel world" feeling.

Entry? You would expect ingresso, but it’s entrata throughout (visto d’entrata, permesso d’entrata, cedolino d’entrata).

An unexpected benefit of this approach is that while Italian bureaucracy has a penchant for archaisms and latin mumbo-jumbo, for example translating denial with diniego, the Swiss stay much closer to what you would expect from modern Italian (rifiuto), giving a lighter tone that was more fitting for a videogame.

In the same vein, we stayed clear from the heaviness usually associated with buraucracy, but went full on with its pettiness.

Your booth is a guardiola , the entry ticket is a cedolino d’entrata , the id supplement is an identificativo and so on.

Every term is a derivative of some sort and thus feels small, boring and insignificant.

Regarding nation names,  we kept all of them as is, except for United Federation which became Federazioni Unite similarly to how United States is called Stati Uniti .

This may sound counter-intuitive, given the relevance other languages gave to adapting that aspect, but it’s really a cultural thing.

A whole paper could be written just about this but, without going into too much detail, Italians seem to prefer original/foreign names, even when quite detached from our language.

When dealing with a text with the name "Mumpit Mush" during LocJAM, two translators out of three decided to leave it as is or tweak it slightly. When dealing with a text with the name "Mumpit Mush" during LocJAM, two translators out of three decided to leave it as is or tweak it slightly. That’s how we roll.

One last terminology choice we had to deal with was how to adapt "Ministry of Admission", as a straight translation would have sounded a bit off.

Our favorite solution was Ministero dell’Accoglienza which translates both as Ministry of Acceptance and Ministry of Welcoming .

As this meant adding a strong element of double-speak satire, we also suggested Ministero dei Confini which roughly means Ministry of State Lines and thus played with the idea of a bureaucratic structure devoted to hopelessly trivial things.

In the end, Lucas went for Ministero dell’Accoglienza as a homage to 1984.

After all, guess what book the 978-0-452-28423-4 ISBN number at the end of the ingame manual actually belongs to?

Continues… (Really, 5000+ words and we haven’t even started with the translation proper. That’s why I don’t write these very often)

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