SpaceMail is a Unity-based digital narrative game that explores political rebellion, ethics, and space. Created for Stanford's CS247, a human-computer interaction game design studio.

9 min read • Last updated August 16, 2022

SpaceMail is about working as a space package delivery person who is thrust into the midst of an interplanetary political rebellion. The game takes place in the Proioxis Galaxy, humanity’s first and largest space colony, which is ruled over by the oppressive regime known as the Command. The game opens shortly after the collapse of the Resistance, a rebellion movement that attempted to overthrow the Command but failed. The main character, a former rebel, is punished for their role in the Resistance by being relegated to a menial package delivery job in order to pay the bail for their imprisoned family members.

SpaceMail follows the player’s first three days on the job, across which they deliver packages between the five planets of the Proioxis Galaxy. The game follows a scripted sequence of packages—at first, the packages are fairly innocuous, but as the game progresses, the packages begin to reveal a deep secret: a second Resistance movement brewing, and the player has the power to stifle or empower the nascent rebellion by which packages they decide to deliver or incinerate.

Player decisions are the core of SpaceMail. Player decisions about early packages affect the progression of the story. Players must balance between performing their job well enough to not get fired and also making calculated mis-deliveries in order to push the story in the direction that they want. Ultimately, the choice is theirs on how they wish to progress the story, and different play-throughs will yield different narrative outcomes.


Target Audience

We wanted SpaceMail to be accessible for many different audiences while still telling a compelling, morally gray story. Therefore, we adopted a friendly, cartoonish mood with the art that we paired with a relatively serious, morally-gray story about hardship and political rebellion. Our hope is that many audiences will enjoy SpaceMail, but we think its reliance on nuanced storytelling means it’d be a particularly good fit for adolescents and older, or anyone who is introduced to ethical decision-making at an early stage.


Our game at a glance

Diagram of three days in the game with branching arrows for the four storyline paths
Visual map of the game
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Core gameplay loop and mechanics

Key Design Choices

We’re proud to be able to say that we custom-designed all of the art, sound, and code for SpaceMail, and we think this allowed us to nail our intended “approachable yet serious” tone.

Pixel art

We opted for a pixel art style to help us set the mood for our game. We wanted to bring a nostalgic feel and honor the space-themed games of the past like Space Invaders. We also wanted our players to focus on the narrative first and foremost, which a simpler art style can help achieve.

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Character design

Every character in the game is visually unique. I created 39 different characters, each tied to a specific planet and identity. Each character’s color palette and design are linked to their home planet.

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Package design

We went through several iterations – at one point even thinking about having a package scanner in the game. We also experimented with having separate items show up on screen. Ultimately, we decided on a modular approach to packages that would simplify the types of mail you see on screen: item, letter + item, and letter.

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User Interface design

Our UI is largely inspired by swiping apps like Tinder, where your user action is mostly binary (swipe left or right). We wanted to keep as little text on screen as possible as not to distract from the packages themselves.

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Design Process

Initial Decisions

We approached this project not knowing what idea we wanted to pursue. To start the ideation process, we did this exercise where we cut up small bits of paper (10 for each person) and spent 30 seconds writing down one idea for each bit of paper – an activity called “Crazy 8’s”.

After generating ideas separately, we evaluated them together. This looked like us each marking the ideas that we liked on the bits of paper and discussing the ideas that were most popular.

During this discussion, we used a whiteboard to write down what elements from each idea we liked. It was in this process where we began to notice resonance, for example, interest in creating a well-rounded ambiance and creating a fantasy/space theme. This was the start of us coming up with the fundamental formal elements that our team hoped to create as well as the space premise of our game. After each pitch, we discussed, refined, and pitched again.

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Once the premise was formulated, we went through several rounds of discussing what narratives we wanted the game to tell which included the space premise and the mechanics that we agreed upon. This looked like many white-boarding sessions in which we pitched more cohesive plans that told the game idea from start to finish.

Now that we developed the idea of the game with greater detail, we needed to formalize and decide on the mechanics of the game. Getting a better understanding of the storyline actually helped us develop a natural set of mechanics that matched the story and objective of the game.

We mapped out a flowchart for different paths that the game play could follow. Given the package-delivery premise of the story, we could create “good” and “bad” kinds of packages that tested the morality of the player.

These paths in turn could propel the game forward, as the player’s decision-making in delivering packages could help them with their position in the game (e.g. bailing out family members, assisting the resistance with which they felt loyalty towards). Mapping out our storyline and a flowchart for player decisions helped us decide on initial mechanics of the game such as delivering and destroying packages.

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Playtesting

In total, we conducted 12 playtests. Since our game was always designed to be a single-player game, we tested our game with 1 playtester at a time. Our process involved the playtester, a moderator – which was especially necessary in the earlier stages when we had to manually navigate through the different paths – and a notetaker. Unless the question completely prevented the player from moving forward, we did our best to refrain from questions such as, “Am I allowed to ____” to see which directions the player went in based on their own intuitions.

Idea A: Brainstorm – Roleplay

A dating simulator, in space. You are the royal heir of your space colony, and you date other royal heirs in the other colonies of the galaxy. You go on dates in a space diner, which is the central hub for all of the action. The player experiences conflict between which marriage is best for their people (better resources, power, etc.) and what their heart is telling them (better chemistry, storyline).

Per the advice of our TAs, our moderators role-played the different characters in this game with playtesters to examine how they might respond to different situations. This helped us discover the types of reactions different situations would invoke and later offered great insight into what scenarios were most interesting to people.

Conflicting motivations, introspection / assessment of your own values, space and lo-fi atmosphere.

Idea B: Low Fidelity – Paper Prototype

You are a space delivery person who faces morally gray packages each day, and it’s up to you whether or not to actually deliver them. The game ends after a set number of days. Inspired by Papers, Please by Lucas Pope.

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Before we had anything digital, we tested an early conception of our game using a paper prototype that worked relatively well because our game deals with letters and packages that we could simply draw.

This gave us the chance to present our game in a way that focused on narrative and tested the core mechanics, such as the binary deliver vs. incinerate option and when any given day ended.


  • The balance between sillier packages and morally heavy ones
  • The simple binary mechanic making it easy to learn.

[This package] makes me feel bad, but I guess it’s not contraband. I have to incinerate even though it has a really cute note.”


Idea C: Medium Fidelity – Interactive Slides

B, but we’ve added an overarching narrative in which the packages are connected and you must piece them together. Multiple endings that change based on your choices.

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After we delegated the roles in our team, we agreed that we would playtest a simplified version of the narrative of our game that still allowed the player to work with the same mechanics. This is because our game was still in a developing, somewhat fragmented state on Unity, and we wanted players to experience the game all the way through. This is the stage at which we drilled the paths of the game and the significance of each package to tweak the difficulty of our game for our target audience and lock down our narrative.

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We were able to see how players reacted to the outcomes of the decisions they made and test the core loop, while presenting the atmosphere by showing spacey themes, playing sounds, and showing characters. In this version, we also had an interrogation phase where a playtester had to answer questions if they made too many mistakes – this ended up being unsuccessful!

  • Huge reactions after playtester failed to save family
  • Player thrill in the ambiguousness of whether or not a package would help or harm
  • Liked the multiple endings / replayability

“When the subplots come right after each other, it’s easier to connect them. Other times, I wasn’t able to remember. If they have distinctive elements, it’s easier to see how they’re connected, like the cookie… I wanted to know more what are these planets and who am I giving the packages to.”


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Our final playtest at stage D in our design process.

Idea D: High Fidelity – Unity

C, but we’ve added more backstory and narrative that makes the player experience conflicting motivations. This meshes elements from our original dating sim into our new game idea.

Finally, we were able to bring it all together on Unity and playtest the full experience. We conducted 6 playtests to get feedback on our game before making final changes.

“I’m pretty upset that I performed my job as well as possible, and I got screwed over. I think my strategy was so that they could be nice to me. I think if I played more attention to the storyline from the beginning, I probably would not be sabotaged… Maybe when I get the first citation, tell me why I got it.

Strong reactions to the packages themselves and to the other characters like the Foreman or your family. High engagement/immersion based on body language.

Moving Forward

Playtest, playtest, playtest

Looking back on our playtesting process and if we were to expand this game in the future, we think it’s important that we test on a wider age range beyond just college students. For instance, would younger teens also enjoy the minutely excruciating moral dilemma that our game aims to present? However, we were thrilled to find throughout our playtesting process that our game evoked strong reactions in players, favorites including, “Noooooo!!! What did I just do?!?!” and “It looks innocent but… I’m sus.” We believe this is a sign that our playtesters were immersed in the fantasy that they were, indeed, a space delivery person in this politically complex galaxy and that they were following the narrative of our game.

Continue SpaceMail world-building

Since we chose to make a vertical slice with only 3 days in the game, we would likely try to expand the narrative to 10 days if we had more time to develop this game. This would involve a lot of playtesting of the ramping up of moral complicatedness of each day and the packages that it presents. We expect the challenges that would come up to include the player having to remember the relevant hints from Day 2 by the time they hit Day 8, making sure they don’t get bored throughout a longer game, and ensuring that our narrative was properly scoped to take place over a longer stretch of time. We acknowledge that we had to condense our narrative and make it feel a bit rushed because we wanted a fully playable game even though we chose to make a vertical slice, and would look forward to pacing it more slowly if we had the time.