Papers, Please: A serendipitous experience for a graduate abroad

2013 has been a very robust and interesting year for the indie game community. From the existentially hilarious walkathon of The Stanley Parable to the far-too-realistic nightvision jump-scarefest of Outlast (aka I swear I’ll play it…tomorrow), the indie market continues to prove itself a diverse and entertaining stomping ground. One particular game from the indie releases of yesteryear has caught quite a bit of attention, and with a well-timed Steam Winter Sale I was lucky enough to come across it myself and pick it up. The game I speak of is Papers, Please.

Released in Summer of 2013, Papers, Please is a PC game developed by Lucas Pope where players assume the role of a happenstance immigration official in the fictitious communist country of Arstotzka, set in the early 1980’s. I’ve read that the idea of the game came from Pope’s time living as a foreign resident in Japan, which sparked inspiration when Pope had to consistently deal with the stresses of clearing customs. As someone whose spent the past week ceremoniously bobbing up and down to the monotonous droll drum beat of Papers, Please, I can say that if the inspiration is true, Pope’s anxieties certainly transpose well into this game.

Coincidentally enough, this game was released around the exact same time I flew to Japan to begin my own trip during my post-graduation hiatus of Vancouver Film School’s Game Design program. Much like the displaced transients and nervous citizens attempting to enter Arstotzka in Papers, Please, I found myself quite anxious when being asked the same questions over and over again at Japan’s Immigrations and Customs booth.

“Phone number section is blank. What is your phone number?”

“I don’t have a phone number, I disconnected my phone before traveling”

“What is your phone number? Please write it down in this box”

Granted, the language barrier seemed to be the biggest cause of my issues during that time. But after my trip through Japan, and a slight detour through Australia, I’ve since immigrated to New Zealand on a whim with a temporary work visa. And with that came even more hassles and paper work: medical clearances, visa applications, bank statements, tax identifications, etc. The amount of papers I needed to apply for, and produce, began to cause a slight stinging sensation in my frontal cortex. Even my 2 week detour through Australia caused a mini-panic attack when I was almost denied entry at check-in for lack of a travel visa, caused by my fly-by-night schedule.

Papers, Please captures these frustrations and puts you on the other side of the desk. Players are stuck in a cramped booth and given rudimentary tools such as a small pocket book with critical information, among other devices, to be used to discern whether documents provided to them are legitimate. This game employs the thrown-to-the-wolves style of play as you learn the game mechanics while on the job, with time ticking away on the clock in the corner of your booth. And each second counts, as the amount of people you work through in a day determine your salary in order to pay off daily expenses like rent, food, and heat for you and your family.

In the beginning, the game provides an easy challenge by making the requirements for entry into your country ridiculously simple. Essentially, if the passport provided to you isn’t expired (you’re shown the current date in your booth) and there’s no glaring issues, you can give them the green go-ahead stamp. But as you progress, events by and large start to tighten your country’s security protocols and soon you’ll find yourself sifting through handfuls of documents – passports, work visas, entry permits, ID tickets – searching for something as small as a misspelled name or city. In only a matter of a few in-game days, you’ll find yourself going from simply accepting or denying entrants to detaining suspected criminals, dealing with bribes, juggling daily expenses, getting wrapped up in conspiracy rings, and everything in between.

But the most interesting part of the seemingly mundane rigmarole of being a lowly immigration official is how much your actions, or inaction, ripple throughout the timeline of the game. While your family is devolved into a unseen state of a text-bubbles indicating things like OK, Cold, Hungry, etc, the interaction with complete strangers becomes an intimate affair each time someone steps into your booth. Players are presented with tough choices like Do I let this guy’s wife through even though her documents are fake? Do I accept this woman’s bribe to pay for my son’s medicine? Do I detain this man just because his name is spelled incorrectly? along with many others. You’re forced to make these split second decisions as your little booth clock ticks on, and your ability to make the day’s expenses grow slimmer with each passing second. Every new day allows the player to make two “errors in judgement” which is signified by the ominous sound of a citation being printed at your desk (great, more papers). Whether there’s mistakes being made to accept or deny entrants, intentional or not, it’s ultimately left up to the player to decide how they choose to allocate their free-warnings when available. Each citation after your second warning comes at a cost to your daily income, so when presented with a choice to let in a struggling refugee who lacks the proper paperwork, or providing your family food that day, it becomes a tough call to make.

Papers, Please presents the player with rewards in the form of booth upgrades. While the upgrades themselves are trivial, like being able to press the tab button to slide your Accept/Deny stamp drawer in and out, each additional upgrade, however minor, saves you precious time during your day-to-day duties. Otherwise, everything in the game is point, click and drag with the mouse, making some of the simplest actions tedious and frustrating. I got to the point where I was writing vital referential details from the in-game notebook in my own, personal notebook just to save myself the mouse clicks from pulling up the same information in-game. Near the end of my first play-through, my laptop was getting so riddled with sticky notes that it started to echo the clutter of paper inside my virtual immigration booth.

The game itself boasts 20 different endings and an unlockable Endless mode with 3 different challenge sets. While certain events in the Story mode appear to be predetermined, many of the individuals who come through your booth are randomly generated with differing documents, appearances and backstories. So even if you overlook someone’s incorrectly documented gender (guilty, unfortunately) and attempt to play the day again to save your perfect streak, you’ll be faced with an entirely new set of characters and documents to scrutinize and cross-examine. And in a game where mundane tedium and repetition are the defining aspects, I applaud Pope for creating a game with such personality and replayability that I find myself drawn in time and time again.

While the gameplay and art style of Papers, Please may not appeal to everybody, it’s a game I’d highly recommend to any of those quick-eyed sleuths out there who are always the first to complete those Spot the Differences between two seemingly identical pictures. It offers a lot of interesting questions about the interplay of morality and the illusion of imposition and power, while cleverly mirroring the world’s current events dealing with growing issues and tensions when it comes to customs, immigrations and travel. And in a world where life imitates art and art imitates life, I’m glad to have played this game directly after my half year of country hopping in order to not only appreciate the providence, but to fully understand and realize I made the right choice in not following my dreams and aspirations as an Immigration Officer (but I’m still forever grateful to the one who let me into Japan).

KC Irvine is an alumni of the VFS Game Design program