Papers, Please, a very small production that grew out of the banner of the independent video game producer, Lucas Pope, is one of the few game creations that tell the story more through the gameplay, than dialogues and various types of interludes. The recipe is very simple – we have won a special workers’ lottery and we must play the role of an immigration officer on the border of two familiar-sounding countries hating each other: Arstotzki and Kolechia.
A personal perspective is imposed on us. We are not at the top of the hierarchy, directing the activities of the entire state, but we are forced to act as a pawn of the system, which – although not at the very bottom of the social, totalitarian ladder – is only slightly higher than the people over whom it apparently has power, i.e. immigrants, migrants and traveling citizens.
It sounds fairly easy, after all, making morally positive decisions should not be so difficult. It is different, however, because this is where game mechanics come in. First of all, we have to support our family (food, heating, additional variable costs, e.g. medications – sometimes you will have to choose between eating and starving, freezing and taking care of illness). The amount of our earnings depends on the number of people passed through the border. One mistake and passing an unwanted individual can cost us our lives (or maybe by saving our own skin, we condemn someone to death, as the game suggests). It is getting harder with each day, especially since a limited time is an additional difficulty (decisions must be made really quickly, survival is at stake) and random events (assassination, forced closure of the border, etc.).
Secondly, Papers, Please is a memory-logic game. The number of documents, names and symbols, quite difficult to remember, will increase over time. To make sure that we can let someone pass, sometimes – besides the standard data inspection – we will have to ask an additional question, ask for a specific document or conduct an examination. Sometimes we will have to face aggressive or sluggish behavior, and sometimes emotions (old mother wants to visit her son, but she does not have the appropriate documents, woman in love trying to reach her partner, etc.). Time will be relentlessly running away while we make another impossible decision.
The game’s real stake is humanity, an assessment of our human condition. A series of individual decisions can lead to different endings. Can we save the family and escape the gloomy world of gray pixels? Or maybe we end up as the oiled cog of the apparatus of oppression?
Additionally, Papers, Please can boast of having nice graphics. Sure, this is not a big budget production, but small details (document stamping system and mini-scenes full of black humor) can please the eye. This world is credible with micro-stories of people passing through the border, and the never-ending queue of black-gray figures, slowly moving towards the barrier, reminds us that the border is an artificial creation – and like any tool not always working properly, if not in good hands.