The lights are on
One of the many things I'm thankful for is how much I've been able to travel. My wife and I made it a priority before we had children, and my job provides plenty of reasons to never fully unpack my suitcase. Even though I love to see other places, I will admit that I do get annoyed at border crossings. Getting off a plane to stand in line to get a seemingly arbitrary rubber stamp isn't exactly my idea of a great time. I know that as boring as it is for me, it must be absolutely excruciating for the poor souls who have to staff those booths, waving people in, stamping passports, and enforcing various rules and regulations. Papers, Please has reinforced my hunch that I wouldn't thrive in that line of work...at all.
When Kato announced that he was championing Papers, Please, I pounced at the chance to accept the challenge. Tim reviewed the game for us, and I watched him play it for a while. It looked interesting, but it came out right when I was busy playing a bunch of other games. Fortunately for me, this was a perfect time to make up for it.
I was immediately taken by the game's purposefully dated presentation. It's set in the early '80s in the fictional Eastern European nation of Arstotzka, and the pixelated PC look fits the era perfectly. You're in charge of working a newly opened checkpoint, and it's your responsibility to ensure that the appropriate bureaucratic steps are enforced. The gameplay loop is relatively straightforward: A person comes to your booth, hoping to cross the border. You ask them their reason for visiting, listen to their responses, and check their documents. If everything is in order, you stamp their passport and send them on their dreary way. Otherwise, you turn them away or worse.
At first, I didn't have any problems keeping up. Enforcement at the new checkpoint was reduced to a simple mandate: Let people from Arstotzka in, and turn away all foreigners. A glance at their passport separated your comrades from people from other fictional nations. At the end of the day, I saw the depressing fruits of my labor. My meager salary was cut even smaller after the costs of the day's rent, food, and heat were sliced away. That left precious little money to buffer my family from what hardships most certainly were ahead.
Things got more complicated as time passed. Soon, I was having to check fingerprints, make sure physical descriptions matched, and other menial tasks. It wasn't fun. I was sloppy, and after getting several of my daily warnings, my precious pay got docked. I had to prioritize between eating and heating our apartment. My son and uncle died because of my inattention to detail. Eventually, I was approached by some rebels. When I told my supervisor about them, I was imprisoned. Game over.
Fortunately, 20 different endings exist. That failure filled me with renewed strength. This job sucked, but there was something mindlessly pleasant about it. Pleasant, even if it meant having to split families apart because one member didn't have the appropriate documentation. There are plenty of times when you're asked to bend the rules and help people out. I was generally a stickler for the rules, because looking the other way took away one of my precious free passes for the day. I didn't want my own family to starve or die again. Perhaps these people should have gotten their papers in order before getting in line.
You're constantly being asked to make those tough choices, which is something I always appreciate as a player. There were days when I'd only make one or two errors, and my paycheck would make it home intact. Other days weren't as great; the pressure of keeping the line moving – your pay is directly affected by how many bodies you shuttle through – often led me to scan things quickly and stamp "Approved." Each time, the reason I failed was as clear as could be. Wrong sex. Mismatched ID numbers. Hidden bomb.
Papers, Please isn't "fun" in the way that most games are, but I'm going to continue playing it. That's a testament to how compelling I thought it was overall, but mostly I just want to get my family the hell out of Arstotzka.
My VoteKato and Papers, Please both have my support in our Top 50 Games discussion. I love that Lucas Pope took something so seemingly mundane and turned it into an interesting and deeply moving experience. I especially appreciated how you can choose to be a heartless automaton (while providing for your own family) or help support an underground revolution. Even within the confines of that tiny glass cage, there's freedom to be had.
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