I recently found myself addicted to an independently developed video game called Papers, Please. Papers, Please is set in what appears to be a dramatization of the former Eastern bloc. A large chunk of the game takes place inside an immigration checkpoint in Grestin, a fictional border town split into East and West by the recent conflict between the neighboring communist states of Kolechia and Arstotzka. You, the player, are the lucky winner of the Arstotzkan October labor lottery and to begin working for the Ministry of Admission (MOA) as an immigration inspector at the newly opened border checkpoint. Your family is also to be relocated to a “Class-8 dwelling”, which I can only assume is a euphemism for a ghetto.
The story telling elements of the game are very minimal, most of what you could consider the game’s “plot” is revealed to you at the beginning of each day through newspaper headlines. Headlines also provide you with hints towards your objective for that day. Your job, at first, is fairly straightforward; only admit into Arstotzka those who meet the requirements outlined by your handy MOA guidebook. Seems simple enough, right? As the game progresses, it becomes necessary to become increasingly discerning as border security adopts stringent measures for admission into your fair motherland. You must micromanage the influx documents that come through your workstation as the meager pay you receive at the end of the work day is docked for poor performance. Additionally, you are responsible for paying for food, rent, and heat, all of which are necessary for your family’s health and well-being at the end of each game day (in that regard, it’s like a more contemporary Oregon Trail, if Oregon Trail had gulags). I learned the importance of balancing speed and efficiency the hard way when my son and wife became ill and passed away only one week into my first play-through. Disturbingly, I reported to work at 6 AM sharp the next day.
Papers, Please uses retro graphics and a color palette composed of dark, cold colors (gray, blue, brown, and red – colors common to soviet propaganda art). This makes for a very dark and isolated atmosphere. The game’s interface is very simple. The top half of the screen displays an overview the border checkpoint. To the left is a queue huddled, featureless masses of immigrants seeking passage into Arstotzka. To the right is a long stretch of paved concrete and an armed guard. To call it unwelcoming would be a staggering understatement. In the center of it all is a tall concrete wall and your tiny office. The bottom half of the screen displays the inside of said office. At this point I should warn you: if you are claustrophobic, you may not want to play this game. The space provided to you (the actual player) is as small as the game makes it out to be. At the later stages, it becomes very difficult to view all the paperwork at once. I found the pressure exhilarating and incredibly stressful (in a good way, if that makes sense).
At the end of each day you return to your apartment and your score for the day is tallied. The cost of rent, food, and heat is deducted from your savings and earnings for the day. The status of your family is displayed on the right, though your family is never actually seen. In the game’s current build, you cannot interact with them directly, either (I would keep it that way); you may only adjust whether you will pay for heat or food for that night. The only other option given to you on this screen is “SLEEP”. All interaction with other characters is indirect; the player is coaxed into being as emotionally and physically detached from his family as he is from the immigrants and citizens who pass through your office window.
There is a very strange power dynamic at work in this game. The game’s preface introduces your character as a normal, unspectacular man. There’s nothing special about him that qualifies him for this position, his selection was simply luck of the draw. Yet the task given to you appears to be of great importance; with just the press of a stamp, a person’s fate is determined. The first difficult decision I encountered was a couple who were immigrating into Arstotzka together. The husband’s paperwork checked out and he passed through without much hassle. He asked me to be kind to his wife, who was in line directly behind him. I called for the next person in line and surely enough, it was a woman from the same country asking for her husband. Ready to send her through to Arstotzka, I riffled through her papers. I was slightly alarmed to find that some of her documents were missing. Though I had made no promise to her husband, I wanted to send her through. But until this point, I hadn’t received any citations and I wanted to keep it that way. I was on precarious grounds, would letting this woman through cost me my job? Certainly, I could be replaced. Would I be able to provide for my family? My savings are next to nil. All that confidence and self-importance granted to me by those red and green stamps began to leave me. Fearful of the consequences of insubordination, I accepted that I was under the Arstotzkan government’s thumb and denied her entry and sent her away. That night, the heat was shut off in my apartment.
Papers, Please is much more than just a TSA simulator. For one, you actually have to work. Facetiousness aside, there are little nuggets of social commentary scattered throughout the game especially in the later chapters when more intrusive and questionable security measures are put into place. The gameplay encourages adopting a daily routine and working quickly and efficiently. This requires treating most people entering Arstotzka as pieces of paper. By the end of my first play-through, I had shocked myself with the decisions I had made for the sake of preserving the safety of Arstotzka from outside “threats.” I was also confused at the speed at which MOA citations for poor performance were issued. Is there another, more competent immigration inspector somewhere down the line? If so, why do they need me? Am I being watched by Big Brother? Perhaps I’m just being paranoid… Perhaps.
The only complaint I have about Papers, Please is that it is still in beta. Luckily, that means you get a chance to try it for free before the final product is released (though Lucas Pope, the game’s developer, hasn’t named a prospective price or created a kickstarter to my knowledge). The game in it’s current release isn’t that long, so it’s worth a try. Just keep an eye out for that Jorji fellow. Glory to Arstotzka.