“Papers, please.” I say to the rather rotund lady that just entered my booth. She slips a passport, an entry permit, and an identification supplement through the small slot.
“What is the reason for you visit?” My voice is mechanical as I spread her documents over my cramped workspace, mostly obscuring the book of rules and regulations I keep below it.
“Visiting friends.” She says.
“Duration of your stay?”
“It will be few weeks.” She is stone-faced.
Her name is Petra Sokovich. Native of Kolechia. Female, obviously. Passport issued in Yurko City. Passport expires in 1984, two years from now. My eyes flit to the entry permit. The seal is good. Her reason for entry matches, the time frame matches. I glance over her ID supplement. Right weight, right height. Curly hair. Wait. She has long straight hair.
“This doesn’t sound like you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I hand her a fingerprint form, and run her name. Her fingerprints don’t match.
“I cannot verify your identity,” I say.
Her eyes begin to well up. “Please let me through,” she says.
I hit a small red button beneath the counter. Buzzers go off and the shutter drops. “Please wait here.”
Two guards approach and demand her exit. She goes in silence. I press the buzzer, “Next!”
This is a basic interaction in the border crossing simulator, Papers, Please, created by Lucas Pope. Set in the fictional communist country of Arstotzka during the early 1980s, you play as a citizen randomly selected to run a border crossing as Arstotzka opens its borders to immigration for the first time in…a long time. During the course of the story, Arstotzka proves to be more than a backdrop, the political landscape between it and the surrounding nations is rocky at its best, and the people that come through your checkpoint are at once flat and boring and oddly compelling and interesting. You yourself have a family that you almost never actually interact with, but they exist and play a significant part of the story despite you never hearing their names or knowing what they look like.
Basic gameplay is pretty much exactly what you might expect. You are given a set of rules to follow, and as your progress through the days in-game, these rules accumulate and mutate, albeit on a set path. The game “rewards” a scrutinizing eye, attention to detail is absolutely required for the survival of you and your family. Early on you’ll only have to tackle a few documents at a time, perhaps a passport and a simple entry ticket. By the end you’ll need to check passports, access permits, identification supplements, immunization records, diplomatic requests, people seeking asylum, special ID cards, work permits, and all sorts of other business. Combine all these official rules (set by the Ministry of Admissions” with strange exceptions that can come from all sorts of sources: a shadowy order seeking to root out the corruption of the Arstotzkan government, the pleas of various citizens, guards at the checkpoint, even your boss, on occasion, and you’ve got a labyrinthine number of rules and regulations to mix with your personal agendas to try to get by without getting too many citations for missing anything. You might think you’ve got admission down to science, until your get written up because someone’s passport said they were male but they looked female.
As you look over the documents, you enter “inspect” mode and highlight any discrepancies, either between documents or your rulebook, and are given the option to interrogate the person about it. This often leads to corrected statements, denied entry, or even detention. Every person you process correctly nets your $5. The trick is, you’re renting an apartment with your wife, son, mother-in-law, and uncle, and you’re the only one that works. You need to pay $25 for rent, $20 for food, and $10 for heat every day. You could try to build up some savings by skipping anything but the rent for a day, but you risk your family getting sick—which of course necessitates purchasing medicine for them. Unexpected things could happen at work, as well, terrorist attacks can cut the days short, cutting into your pay, but saving money can have benefits as well. You are offered a series of small upgrades that are, admittedly, silly sounding, but are small time-saving maneuvers that can give you the edge in your processing. The first, for instance, is the ability to press the spacebar to enter inspect mode, rather than click a small button in the bottom right corner. It sounds like it isn’t much, but the seconds you save over the course of the day means you might squeeze that one last crucial person into the booth before the horn goes off and the checkpoint closes. And that means five more dollars to feed your family.
Visually the game doesn’t do much, but it doesn’t really need to. It uses retro-styled graphics and old-timey sound effects that oddly suit the setting and the style of the game, with bland colors and a sort of hopeless feeling. Little swatches of color crop up in the silly ads for strip clubs dancers drop on your desk, or a drawing your son might make for you and they take on a strange significance because of it. There is no soundtrack for the predominant portion of the game, you spend your time processing in relative silence.
But here’s where the game gets really compelling. On its surface, it doesn’t sound very interesting. You look at papers in a cramped space, following stupid rules and having to deal with your boss’s crap. Essentially, it’s work. It’s not what you do, though, it’s what it makes you think and feel. It’s not quite the emotional journey of, say, Journey nor the action packed world of damned near anything else on the market today, but it still affects you on a deep level. The people who came to my checkpoint were essentially boiled down to numbers. They were, more often than not, the equivalent of whatever paperwork they slipped me through that slot. It was no longer about helping these folks escape whatever lives they had to immigrate to live with their wives, or that they had a job here, if they didn’t have the right paperwork, for whatever reason, I couldn’t let them through. Certainly, it was in my power to allow them access, but then I wouldn’t get paid. If I didn’t get paid, I couldn’t feed my family. Were my problems more important than theirs? You bet. There were, of course, exceptions to this, and they were the severely humanizing elements of the piece. An early example: early on, after entry tickets are phased out for entry permits, you get a cheerful man in. His documents all check out, and as he heads out of the booth and into Arstotzka, he mentions his wife is just behind him, and requests that you treat her nicely. His wife enters, but doesn’t have an entry permit, just an old entry ticket. At the time, I couldn’t bear the thought of keeping them apart. I’d forgone heating at my home the previous night, so I had some extra money, so I stamped her through and took the write-up, it was a just a warning, after all. I received no reward, save for an achievement and a (hitherto to me) worthless token. Likewise, the introduction of the EZIC order offers an unusual sense of intrigue in an otherwise drab world, hidden agents pass through the checkpoint and its up to you to ensure their entry, or you might need to poison a diplomat who may damage the order’s progress. I tended to latch onto these events, as they spiced up my otherwise “boring” in-game life. You almost creepily become what we all sort of hate to be, that asshole at the counter of some retail store that says “I’m sorry, but you can only return this before the thirty days, and it’s been thirty-two.” You hate that guy, but he didn’t make that rule. For all you know there’s no way for him to circumvent that. You’re given chances to make the world around you a better place, and whether you do or not, I feel, is very strongly reflective of you in the real world.
Papers, Please is something different. It’s rather unlike anything you’ve likely played before, and certainly merits a try. It’s not for any of the usual reasons, which makes it even more interesting to me. It doesn’t wow you with visual flair or tight controls. Rather the constrictions placed around you are there by design, forcing you to navigate the bureaucratic nightmare of Arstotzkan immigration with little more than your wits and whatever moral compass you might have left at the end of each day.