Papers, Please — UX Review

I don’t like playing games that trick me into doing long mundane tasks. And yet I’ve played papers please an unreasonable number of times. There’s just something charming about playing an Eastern European-Esque immigration inspector during what's implied to be the cold war. Especially when you’re a first-generation American living….now.

Cue the theme song

Papers, Please is a 2013 single-player puzzle game made by Lucas Pope through 3909. On paper (pun not intended), this shouldn’t be fun. The pitch of being an immigration inspector isn’t immediately enticing. It’s a low-level, bureaucratic paper-pushing desk job where you realize your days are somehow simultaneously tedious and too short, you end up building prejudices, and after a point have to take bribes to feed your family, unless you’re like me and try and kill off your mother-in-law. There are corrupt dignitaries, worthless plaques, and penalties that dock your pay.

But the unexpected need to carefully strategize your actions is what makes this game fantastic. Plus, the variability in play styles makes the narrative that much more compelling. Every day sequence has a new challenge and a new plot point to get to. And if you’re lucky you can make some extra cash.

From a UX standpoint, I do have some complaints.

Now, I love the pixelated and aged look of the UI. I think it fits the story perfectly. What I can’t stand is the amount of time in this game I spend dragging and dropping documents to review them.

A very cluttered desk of a cluttered investigator.

Each “workday” is 6 minutes long, but I end up spending half my time dragging documents across my screen and digging for the right pages in my rulebook. Granted, as you continue further into the game you can buy booth upgrades that make this process simpler, so using the tab key to open your stamps, pressing the space bar to open the scanner, upgrading your rulebook, etc… But that doesn’t stop the constant need for dragging.

My recommendation: give me a button that pulls items straight from my desk to my viewing screen and another that will return things straight to the candidate. Please. A keyboard has so many buttons already.

My other point is the most frustrating feature of the game, the data analyzer. The data analyzer functions to verify discrepancies in the candidate’s data. It is vital for the player to get the prompts they need to interrogate the candidate. So why, oh why, is it so hard to use?

I promise that I’m better at matching data when not for demonstration purposes.

When clicking on items to compare, you can double click on a piece of information, and then double click on the comparison. The anticipated behavior would be that after the first set of info is compared, you can click on the third piece of information to compare to the first. But no. How silly of me. You think you’re comparing exhibit A to exhibit C but OH! Really it's Exhibit B to C! Then C to D! Then so on! Just why? Time is literally money in this game and my son keeps getting sick because he’s cold or hungry or something. Kids these days.

My Recommendation: Number (or letter) the information as the user clicks it. Then make it so that the player must unclick the information they no longer want to compare, leaving that option free. This portion shouldn’t be where people struggle (the struggle should be trying to count the I’s in Kristiina), so this way is almost foolproof.

Other than that, pretty good for a poor country with minimal supplies. Maybe now I can upgrade my apartment. Glory to Arstotzka.

A UX designer doing her best to sashay into game design