Working for the Clampdown
Solo developed video games have always interested me. They are a good place to see what can be accomplished with unhampered vision and passion. Lately I’ve been working my way through Return of the Obra Dinn by Lucas Pope. The game is fascinating and it made me interested to check out Pope’s earlier game Papers, Please. Met with critical acclaim when it was released in 2013, it has since kept up a reputation of a unique and heartfelt game.
In Papers, Please, you play as a border inspector for the totalitarian government of the fictional country of Arstotzka. The country takes obvious inspiration from the former Soviet Union and its heavy regulation and restriction of immigration. The gameplay focuses on checking the papers of all people trying to enter the country through your border checkpoint, accepting the immigrants with proper papers and denying all those with missing and forged papers. Your character gets paid for every person processed and pay is docked for every mistake you make. The money is important because you have a family at home that depends on you. Rent is immediately taken out every night and you must also pay for food, heat, and medicine if a family member is sick. That is, if you have enough money.
Everything in Paper, Please revolves around time and space management. Your desk space is extremely limited and you will soon have too many papers to check to have them all on you desk at once without overlapping. The time in a day you have to work is also limited and is even cut short sometimes by terrorist attacks. If you don’t process enough people in a work day, you’ll go home short on cash. The game throws a load of little things that take up a tiny amount of time which adds up throughout the day. This aspect of the Papers, Please is so smart and subtle it is a great candidate for a future post.
The most interesting thing in the game is the people trying to get into Arstotzka. Many are desperate to enter the country, begging and bribing you to let them in if their papers are forged. Some get mad at you for denying them entry and some are even bitter about returning to the country. There are dozens of sad stories that will pass through the checkpoint during a playthrough. Memorable ones for me were the couple were the wife is missing papers, the woman who wants you to deny a man because he plans to sell her into sex work, and the father who request you to steal a man’s passport so he can track him down for killing his young daughter.
Even through the game’s minimal dialogue, the character’s fear and sorrow are heart wrenching and it is effective at making the player want to help them. This is not easy to do though. You have two free mistakes in accepting improper people a day, so you have a little wiggle room if you play perfectly, but if you are too careless then you pay and the end of the day screen will remind you that it is your family that suffers. The player is constantly torn between wanting to help the people coming through the checkpoint and keeping their family healthy.
The game offers multiple playstyles without ever changing the core mechanics at all. During my first playthrough,I found the easiest way to win was to keep my head down and work under the government’s boot heel. The only problem with that is I felt horrible turning away anyone in need of help. During my second playthrough, I tried to help as many people as possible since I improved at the game, but quickly ran into issues making enough money to keep my family warm and full. Many games offer different skill sets for differing playstyles or classes, but Papers, Please stays the same game mechanically. You’ll still be checking papers and all, but it feels completely different trying to slyly subvert the government or just look out for you and your own.
There is a strange sense of meta-immersion in the game. It often feels like office work while looking over the number of papers needed to be checked and that feeling is only heighten while you are sitting at your desk playing on a computer. A complaint I’ve often heard against Papers, Please is that is can end up feeling too much like a job. This is a valid complaint because checking the papers can be tedious and fear of making a mistake is stressful like work can be. I’ve also heard people say that they would not consider Papers, Please a game due to it feeling too much like work and I don’t agree with that. The game still has very video games rules and logic. Booth upgrades can help you point out discrepancies and stamp passports faster, there are no repercussions of skipping a day of meals if you eat the next day, and the fact that you can quickly restart a day if you fail a task and lose are all examples of things that could only happen in a video game. Real life work doesn’t offer a redo button nor do books or movies offer the freedom of choice in Papers, Please.
It’s a game that only works as a video game and I was enthralled from beginning to end. The concept was interesting and the characters’ desperation fit perfectly with the setting and themes. Papers, Please is fascinating as a game because it uses a new and unconventional gameplay style to tell a believable story of human pain. Mechanically it is fresh and challenge, keeper players just on the edge of failure, but offering enough support throughout the game to keep them engaged.
Of course, there are some issues with the game. The art style I really like. It is rough and bleak, fitting perfectly with the former Soviet Union setting, but it does tend to make it difficult to spot certain discrepancies. Height was always an issue for me to catch due to the measuring bars behind the characters not being clear enough. The font on the documents is extremely pixelated, making it hard to read sometimes, and fingerprints are very messy, requiring me to just check for differences whenever they came up. Most discrepancies are noticeable while just looking over documents and comparing them, but it’s the moments when they are not clear at a glance that lead to frustration.
Other issues I have with the game are very minor. Failure can come in an instant at times if you forget to do a certain task in a day. Example of this would be losing because I denied a diplomat from entering Arstotzka because their papers were incorrect. But while failure can come quick, you can also restart just as quick on the day you failed. The pointer can also feel imprecise at times. It’s more annoying than frustrating when you mean to click on a date on a passport but end up highlighting the entire passport, but because of the imprecision, I never ended up using the final booth upgrade to double click to search for discrepancies.
But all these issues are forgotten when I think of the line of sad stories that passed through my checkpoint and how it made me feel genuinely terrible not to help those struggling people out. Papers, Please is so truly engaging and unique that I implore anyone who hasn’t played to please check it out. It is a highly emotional experience and a strong, sad story that doesn’t skimp on gameplay. It is an argument for video games to be considered art. It is a video game that only works because of the unique qualities that make games different from movies or books, and that is honestly the highest praise I can give any game.