Article by contributor Kyle Hanson.
A man walks up to my station with passport and entry permit in hand. I check all of the usual forms and verify that everything matches and that nothing is out of date. Once everything checks out I wave him along as I’ve done to so many before. He mentions that his wife is right behind him and that they are looking forward to starting their new life in the glorious country of Arstotzka. A moment later she comes up to my counter and I go through the same motions, but this time I notice something. The date on her passport is past its expiration by a couple of days. I mention this and she says that it must be a mistake, some glitch or misstep by one of my fellow bureaucrats. I could let her go, let her start her new life with her husband who seemed so kind, but I’ve already got two rule violations for today. It’ll cost me five credits if I get another violation, and with my sick son at home I can’t afford that. So, with all of these various moral and ethical issues weighing on me I pull out my stamp, shuffle her passport under it and with a fair amount of guilt press it down with a satisfying “ca-chunk”…Denied.
This is just one of the many memorable interactions I had while playing Papers, Please by Lucas Pope. The game draws you in with its simple, yet appropriately evocative art style and interface and slams you over the head with some of the most engaging video game role playing in the last few years. Don’t get me wrong, this game isn’t an RPG, it is, however, a game where you inhabit the role of another person entirely. By playing through the surprisingly lengthy story mode I became a border check agent for Arstotzka. Swamped in endlessly multiplying rules and regulations, I turned away people because of simple violations that could have been overlooked, working against my own moral compass multiple times because the well-being of my family was on the line.
Papers, Please has seemingly simple gameplay mechanics. You play as a border agent in the fictional country of Arstotzka. Your job is to check all the papers for immigrants and returning citizens for violations of the rules. The complexity comes from the fact that not only are the rules ever changing, but they continue to pile up throughout the game. At first you just check a passport and maybe an entry ticket, but by the end of the game you’ll be cross-referencing and verifying between four and five documents for each person that comes through your checkpoint. If you find anything wrong at all such as an outdated form or the registration number on one document not matching another or even something as small as the name being misspelled, then it becomes your job to interrogate the individual and either have them correct the mistake, turn them away, or have the guards detain them for further “questioning”. If you let someone through who doesn’t belong then you get a violation form. Too many of violations and you start getting fined, too many fines and your family starve.
Each day you wake up, walk to work and get your new set of rules. The rules could be anything from “all foreigners require an entry permit with the proper stamp” to “seize all passports from this group of people”. The rules continue to change throughout the game, and by a few days in it becomes overwhelming to check every document for compliance with every rule. At one point I had forgotten that I was supposed to check the person’s weight against their form, so I received a couple of warnings about that. I started making that a part of my initial routine check but then I began slacking when it came to checking the issuing city for their passport and the stamps that verify the document authenticity so the violations continued. Each step toward oppression was small, but by the end I looked back and saw how much the bureaucracy had changed around me and how much I had changed within and I felt that the game had succeeded in its goals.
The story stretches out over a month and each day is replayable if you feel like getting a different ending, or want to change a mistake you’ve made. While this is a helpful feature replaying more than a day or two can be tedious given how scripted some events are and this might deter some people from seeing the different endings on offer. After you finish the story mode you can unlock the Endless mode which will help prolong your enjoyment of the game but probably not by much since it takes away some of the intrigue and mystery of the main story.
Every part of the game adds something to the impact it has on the player. The music is very well made and, while it may be simple and slightly repetitive, I feel as though I could listen to it for hours without getting bored. The fake dialogue and sound of paper shuffling is enjoyable and never grating. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more satisfyingly simple sound as the one your stamp makes when you approve or deny someone entry. The interface is simple, but very important to both the gameplay and the message the game wishes to impart. Your desk is small and you only have so much space for everything no matter what resolution you use or how big your screen is. When you have five documents all piled on top of each other as well as your handy rule book, and other tools you will feel crushed by the weight of bureaucracy like any real border check agent might.
As someone who has very strong feelings about the topic of immigration and foreign travel it was interesting to see how quickly I began acting like just another cog in the giant machine. I followed the rules to the letter for many days even if I hadn’t gotten enough violations to start worrying about my savings taking a hit. I even began detaining people for small violations just because I had been promised a bribe from some of the guards. And while there is an organization that is trying to fight back, helping them comes at great risk for yourself and your family. As much as I wanted to let some people through despite their violations, every time I read about a terrorist attack in the newspaper or saw one occur at my station I couldn’t help but wonder if that was someone that I let through my station. Given the fact that the game features twenty endings all shaped by your actions it is very possible that they were.
Games can do many things. They can entertain you, they can challenge you, and sometimes they can change you. Papers, Please has the potential to change you as a game player and even as a person but in the end, how much you change is up to you.