Papers Please is a critically acclaimed game set in a border checkpoint in the fictional totalitarian country of Arstotzka in 1982. The player takes the role of an immigration officer who has to inspect documents and interrogate people attempting to enter the country. Progress is achieved through efficiently processing immigrants each day in order to earn enough money to keep your family alive and well. The game has been described as having multiple genres: a paperwork simulator, an emotionally compelling puzzle game, or, as the creator Lucas Pope calls it, a dystopian document thriller. However, if one removes the theme and examines the mechanics, it is clear that this titles bears all the hallmarks of a well-executed time management game. The fact that this isn’t obvious is what makes the title such a success.
In a prototypical time management game, the basic mechanics revolve around players using their time efficiently, effective object placement, problem identification, and managing a limited economy. For example, the game Ranch Rush is a standard model in the genre: each day players start with an ordered list to achieve certain outcomes through their play session; how many tomatoes to grow, how much milk to collect, etc. During the play session, players watch over a garden for plants ready to be harvested, needing watering, or stamping out bug infestations. A large part of the action is about managing the farm, planting in the appropriate area, placing equipment in an effective area of a grid to maximize utility, and planning ahead. For every order that players complete they are given money to spend on upgrading their farm and buying new equipment. Harvesting extra crops does not award any money and can, in turn, result in failing a level because of poor use of time. This pretty much sums up the experience of a time management game.
Papers Please follows this model quite closely, though it alters each element just enough to make it not so obvious that you are following the convention. In both games, players start out with orders for the day, but where Ranch Rush is explicit in what you need to do, Papers Please also gives implicit objectives through the newspaper articles you read at the start of each day. For example, at one point the news reports that a famous athlete is trying to escape his country because of an alleged crime and attempts to come through your border post. This requires the player to pay attention not just to the details of the person’s paperwork, but to current events in the game world. During each play session, you still have to watch over the field of play looking for the correct documents and information, but the problems are not obvious and often very minor, such as a single incorrect character in the spelling of a city name or the wrong gender listed. Once again, this requires the player to really analyze each and every element of a document and can consume a lot of time. The main action of the game is still about placing your documents in an efficient and appropriate place and to plan ahead, but there is no grid to snap to, and there are often extra documents supplied that you cannot throw away. This can result in a very cluttered workspace and delays when looking for the appropriate data. Finally, the way the economy works is still mainly about processing as many orders within the time limit and using money to purchase more equipment, but there are several twists. Unlike most time management games, you can lose money by making mistakes through fines that are levied. The duration of the round can also become shortened due to terrorist attacks and other surprise edicts. As for economy and purchasing mechanics, equipment can be upgraded, but you also need to make sure you pay the rent and have enough money to feed your family on the meager wages given. This makes the player try to work faster and become as efficient as possible throughout the game, placing their best intentions and doing a ‘good job’ against their desire to merely survive.
What truly makes this game compelling is how the aesthetics engage the player emotionally. In traditional time management games, you are often cast as an enterprising entrepreneur with little or no backstory or motivation beyond being the best at what you do, in a shiny, colourful setting. In stark contrast, Papers Please casts you in a drab, bleak environment where it’s stated bluntly that you have a job only because you were lucky enough to win a lottery, and that if you do good work, your family won’t die of poverty. This informs players that they will need to perform efficiently not to be the best, but just to merely survive. The artistic rendering for the world in a game like Ranch Rush is very iconic with vibrant colors and clear meaning, while the world of Arstotzka is deliberately low resolution with muted colors and often confusing meaning. This helps make the world feel bleak and oppressive. Finally, the tasks themselves usually have no bearing on the story of the world, and have little effect on the decision making of the player- you collect plants as they are what need to be harvested, and you do it in the order that is most efficient. In Papers Please, the tasks are personified in often wrenching human aspect, each with their own stories and reasons for trying to enter the country (such as when a husband and wife come through and only the husband has the appropriate documentation). This adds a moral dilemma for the player and they must decide whether to be compassionate and let individuals through, or abide by the government’s rules.
In summary, we can confidently say that Papers Please is clearly a time management game in how it is constructed. It utilizes the same mechanics and strategies, but because of how these have been altered or masked through aesthetics, it is not apparent at the outset. This game demonstrates how a designer armed with a strong understanding what the mechanics are doing in a game can riff on player expectations and create an incredibly compelling game.