How we got involved
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 his own localization post-mortem, we met at the Indie stream party held in Sony's building during Tokyo Game Show 2013.
Needless to say I loved Papers, Please. So, when we met, we ended up chatting 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.
That seems to have struck a chord so a few months later, while getting his help for the Japanese fonts in Republia Times, he casually asked if I wanted to translate Papers Please too.
Studying the game
In my experience, the most effective localizations start from the game itself, learning how it works and interacts with its text.
Papers, Please is quite special in this regard, because you can follow its creation day by day thanks to its very detailed development blog. So let's hear it from Lucas himself:
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.
One of my motivations for making this game is to exploit the player's morals and give them tough choices. I think there's more potential for hard choices here than in Republia Times.
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.
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.
There are a lot of good arguments for a tutorial. But as a gamer I vastly prefer to learn things on the fly, even under pressure. The game will make it easy to go back and replay the day so you can always look at this as an implicit tutorial.
I wanted the player to be overwhelmed at first and to have to feel their way through the interface and ruleset. I really liked the idea of "winning" a labor lottery and being thrown into a job with no training though, so I was hesitant to fix this.
I strongly believe in the importance of gameplay systems in effective interactive media.
For me personally, the interactivity afforded by games makes them a much more effective medium, especially for empathy, than non-interactive books or movies. I hope Papers, Please is a good example of that. “I don't want to strip search you ma'am but it's the only way to be sure about this typo on your entry permit.*
From a development perspective, I don't like to write much dialog. And from a gamer perspective, I don't like to read much dialog. I think the game works better by making the motions more mechanical and less like a traditional dialog tree. At least it enhances the bureaucratic feel for me
"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.
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.
Summing it up
So, 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, checking them and neatly stamping them. The endless mode is there to prove this irresistible appeal of bureaucracy.
On top of that, we have the implicit story shaped by the rules. You're a cog in the bureaucratic machine, "trying to manage a job and a family when the right thing to do isn't so clear ".
Will you take a fine to let that refugee pass, or will you save those credits for the birthday present of your child? Will you accept a bribe, or will you tell your family they can't have dinner tonight?
And on top of that, we have the explicit story written by the author, carving a path through your daily activities.
It introduces new mechanics and it structures the experience into a satisfying arc (with the well-being of your family being at stake in the end). But it doesn't provide 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. Feel free to pick your shade of grey.