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Papers, Please: A Game That Puts Your Sympathy To The Test

Papers, Please casts you as an immigration inspector whose goal is to keep those who don't belong out of the fictional nation of Arstotzka.
Papers, Please casts you as an immigration inspector whose goal is to keep those who don't belong out of the fictional nation of Arstotzka.

Congratulations. The October lottery is complete. Your name was pulled. For immediate placement, report to the Ministry of Admission at Grestin Border Checkpoint. An apartment will be provided for you and your family in East Grestin. Expect a Class-8 dwelling.

Glory to Arstotzka!

Those are the words that open the "dystopian document thriller" Papers, Please, an indie game that is about rules, order and structure. From the Soviet-era opening score to the bleak colors and modest graphics, the oppressive tone of the setting is immediate. Your job, as a single cog in the machine that is the Eastern Bloc-ish nation of Arstotzka, is to keep it safe from spies, saboteurs and outsiders.

But instead of protecting the citizens as a gun-toting hero, you are cast in the role of a nameless, faceless immigration inspector stationed at the border between Arstotzka and Kolechia, which recently ended a six-year war.

You begin each day with a news bulletin and notes from your supervisor about who is and isn't allowed entry. Then it is off to your inspection booth, where the majority of the game takes place. The clatter of the metal shutter signals the start of your workday of checking passports, verifying various paperwork and stamping visas. With the satisfying and mechanical "ka-thunk" of your approval or denial stamp, each visitor to your tiny booth is sent on his way.

Each day grows more difficult as new rules and regulations are placed upon you, and the daunting array of paperwork you must shuffle through grows. Attention to detail is key as you verify dates, names, ticket numbers and permits. Those who excelled at the "find the difference" puzzles in Highlights will be right at home.

But there is more to the game than just the structure and monotony of the task at hand. As you move forward, an engaging and developed story is playing out as well. Moral quandaries come in to play when you must decide on situations like a mother with an expired passport wanting to visit her son, or whether you should separate a husband with valid paperwork and a wife without. If you let someone into the country that should have been turned away, you are dinged with a violation and you earn less money to feed your family, who suffer an Oregon Trail-like series of illnesses and mishaps as the story progresses.

It's this balance of decision-making, and choosing to either play by the rules and take care of your family or help others, that makes Papers, Please so engrossing.

Creating A New Perspective

Papers, Please, created by game developer Lucas Pope, was born from his experiences traveling abroad, especially in Southeast Asia.

"I'm always looking at jobs and the structure of those jobs for ideas," says Pope, who currently lives in Tokyo. "The immigration inspection was just another one of those ideas."

Pope says it wasn't until he introduced the story elements that the game really started to take shape. He says he wanted players to come away from the game with a new perspective on those border inspections.

"One of my goals was to open up what people think about those interactions," he says. "It's really easy to be pissed [at the person behind the counter]. Hopefully they can understand that he's not a bad guy; he's just doing his job."

The game has been highly praised by critics for its innovation of design and originality. Pope is currently working on localizing it for some non-English markets.

My Experience

When I first sat down to play Papers, Please I approached it like many puzzle-type games: make the moves required to win or solve the puzzle. In Papers, Please, this translates to being the coldest, most merciless border agent this side of East Grestin.

"I'm sorry you haven't seen your son in eight years, but your entry ticket is expired by a day."

Ka-thunk! Access Denied.

"I'm sorry you need to work to feed your family, but the stamp on your work permit is incorrect."

Ka-thunk! Access Denied.

But after a few days of receiving my pittance of a salary and trying to feed, clothe and keep my family warm, being the best border agent started to reveal itself as the less profitable choice. Offers of bribes become more enticing from would-be visitors to Arstotzka.

The rules and regulations pile up, and resentment builds toward the so-called glory of Arstotzka. As my own family suffers, sympathy for some of those that entered my booth grew. Soon every choice became maddening. Sending someone away who was fleeing his country or is possibly being trafficked wracked me with guilt.

Even allowing access to Arstotzka, sending visitors forth toward gun-toting guards with the dissatisfying "cause no trouble" mantra, signals that you aren't exactly welcoming them to Shangri-La. Leaving the booth, they shuffle toward what appears to be a fearful and oppressive nation under the facade of its self-stated greatness.

The range of feelings Papers, Please is able to evoke is simply stunning, considering the premise and its simplicity. Pope really outdid himself with the clever writing, cohesiveness and subtle humor of the story, as well as the ethical ambiguity of many of the choices. This is a game that should be experienced by even non-gamers. Buy it. Share it. Talk about it.

The next time I go through an immigration checkpoint of any country, you can be sure I'll be thinking of that man or woman behind the plexiglass in a different light. After all, their son could be sick and the heat might be turned off.

Glory to Arstotzka!

Steve Mullis is an associate Web producer at NPR and claims, though he has no proof, that he once beat the NES game Karnov without getting hit once. If you want to suggest an independent game worth featuring here, please write or tweet him.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.