Remember Papers, Please? Awesome! Let’s all drool over how good it is. I still remember the first time playing it. I was genuinely excited to see what could be done with a game where you seem to do nothing but paperwork. Then the music came in for the title screen and I was already hooked. I thought that this is one of the best games ever. Then it managed to get even better.
Papers, Please is an indie game made by only one person; Lucas Pope. You play as a border security paper pusher for the fictional country of Arstotzka, based on Soviet Russia. Your job is to ensure only the right people are allowed access into the country. The problem is so many people are desperate to join Arstotzka that they’re willing to fake their documentation. So it’s your job to find these people and prevent them from entering the country. This is made more difficult as more rules and regulations are added as the game progresses. Much like a fairly typical difficulty curve in any well designed video game.
At face value, Papers, Please seems incredibly dull. It’s quite easy to dismiss it as a silly little paperwork simulator. After all, who the hell would want to play that? But it goes to show what simple game design can achieve in terms of the fun factor. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that trying to make sure I do everything by the book was intensely enjoyable for me. Not to mention the times when the game suddenly through a curve-ball at you – like at one point when you’re suddenly being taught how to use a gun. It was all very foreboding, right up until the moment you actually had to use it with no warning whatsoever. Being introduced to this mechanic obviously meant it was going to come up later, literally being a Chekhov’s Gun, but you kind of put it out of mind as the game progresses without needing to use it. I think this is in part due to the fact that all you get told is how to access the key that will unlock the gun cabinet. But when someone does jump the fence it’s all very intuitive and in no-time you’ll find yourself taking a life.
The first time you made a mistake is alarming, as screwing up means you’ve just let someone into Arstotzka who shouldn’t have been allowed entry in the first place. This can be because of even the smallest mistake, such as an easy-to-overlook typo on a faked document. But thankfully there’s constantly one easy fake to figure out, always given to you by a regular “customer” who will frequently try to get in with obviously fake paperwork – including one drawn in crayon. I loved that little touch of humanity, plus it honestly reminded me of my own experience getting to know the regulars in customer service. I never disliked this man. In fact, it was actually endearing to see a familiar face now and then since it offered a nice contrast to an otherwise bleak world. He also ended up delivering one of the game’s biggest surprises as you discover towards the end of that game that he was eligible for entry the whole time.
It was always those simple mistakes that got to me though. When you messed up, it was downright maddening to get that little slip to inform you that you let someone in that you shouldn’t. Even when I got it right I feared that terrible slip of paper. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that every time you got it wrong it meant less money for food and medicine for your family. Your family and your moral compass is what really makes the meat of this game.
At first I just wanted to say “fuck the system” and let everyone through until I realised that my family could die due to those decisions. You can still play like this of course, but there are serious story repercussions for doing so which will force you to start all over again again. This creates such a bleak atmosphere and feeling of depression, constantly being reminded that the livelihood of your family is based on whether you do your job properly. The story is just told so damn well with such little exposition, mastering the art of “show, don’t tell”, despite the fairly heavy handed text based endings. For example, take the first time you get a visit from a border security auditor. Essentially a man that is meant to completely analyse and criticise your work and performance so hard you cry like a little baby. It serves as an excellent little way of grading how well you do at the game for those of us, myself included, who loves to look at their performance broken down into stats – but it’s done in such a way that completely ties into the atmosphere of the game. It’s a downright intense moment as he drives up in a very intimidating official looking and stares at you with an almost alien look on his face. He barely seems human, more authority personified. Even the simplest of mistakes can bring serious repercussions from this guy and it’s usually your family that suffers.
On top of the serious repercussions for your actions the graphics and music play a huge part in setting up the atmosphere of this game. Right from the opening title screen, the music is bleak and the title text is coming down on you. Then the game starts, stark white on black text, a lone man walking past the throngs of people lining up to get into “glorious” Arstotzka. It becomes quickly obvious that only a small percentage of this massive line is even going to get to show their papers, much less get past border security. I remember the first time that this fact dawned on me – it was depressing to say the least. It made me want to rebel even more, just let everyone in as fast as I could, and forget the consequences or the rules. But, like I said, doing this has serious story consequences, leaving you unable to afford food for yourself or your family because the fines for mistakes get taken out of your end-of-day pay.
I love that the game offers the freedom to play it like you want, but instead of pandering and making everyone happy in that somewhat saccharine “play it your way” mentality, Lucas Pope has stuck to his convictions and his vision of the game. He made the consequences very real for playing in this manner. Lucas Pope did everything he could to take an incredibly simple concept that sounds as boring as hell and make it genuinely fun game with increasingly difficult gameplay to keep you coming back for more. That alone would have made me enjoy the game, but then he went and added some of the best atmosphere and storytelling I’ve ever seen in a video game.
Glory to Arstotzka!