Video games don’t have to be complex to tell a story. Or, more importantly, have you fill in parts of the story in your head. Early games like Pong existed without any sort of narrative, unless you enjoyed pretending you were a rectangular block intent on sailing a square of pixels past your opponent for ultimate victory. It wasn’t until later that games were given narratives for the player, even though they were extremely simple: rescue the princess, flee the evil robots, destroy oncoming asteroids.
These days, games have deeply complex storylines with multiple, branching plot points and are often denser than most Hollywood movies. They have to be because they often last upwards of ten hours.
But the meteoric rise of indie games have propelled a much smaller type of game to the forefront, often with stories that are just as moving or emotional. This is the case in Papers, Please, from Lucas Pope. The game bills itself as A Dystopian Document Thriller, and here’s the description from the creator:
The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin. Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.
That’s the game in a nutshell, and what it boils down to is you, alone in your solitary information booth, checking the documents of people wanting to enter Arstotzka from a long, snaking line of foreigners and nationals waiting for hours to see if they can get the stamp of approval, or be denied and turned away. Armed with those powerful stamps, your only other tool is information. You’ll be diving into your handbook often to check the particulars of foreign passports, and to see if the intended entrants meet all of the requirements. These often change daily, and failure to notice something like an expired vaccination notice will lead to trouble.
When the border first opens, you can only admit Arstotzkan citizens, and you have to check closely to see if their documents are legitimate. A city name where the passport was issued with even one letter wrong won’t get them in, and if you fail to spot that, you’ll be warned and eventually fined. Following days will open up the border to other nationalities, but they will require entry tickets, entry permits, work permits, and more as time marches on. Constant terrorist attacks will keep both you and the Ministry on edge, and you will be offered bribes, secrets, opportunities, and more.
But the cold, hard reality comes at the end of every day where you find out just how little you earned. Often, you will be unable to afford anything other than your rent, which means no food, no heat, and no medicine. During my first time taking up the post, I lost my son and uncle to sickness, and then decided to take a huge bribe in order to cover costs and keep my wife and mother-in-law alive. Except the ministry noticed, and soon I found myself in jail in one of the 20 different endings to the game.
It’s not exactly Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but there is a level of espionage here that will draw you in, while making you feel like a tiny cog in the enormous communist machine of Arstotzka.
The thing is, this game could just be called Drudgery, because it is monotonous and plodding. But for some reason, it is ridiculously awesome and addictive as hell. Lucas Pope has nailed what I can only assume must be the relentlessly boring atmosphere of a job like this, and peppered it with a ton of authenticity.
As the needs of the government border station progress, you will gain access to fingerprinting, scanning, the ability to detain suspicious people, and more. Details like these are what take Papers, Please and turn it into something you will keep playing even after your entire family dies and you’re penniless in prison. In the game, of course. Please don’t let this take over your actual life.
You can play Papers, Please on Mac and PC for only $9.99, and for maximum authenticity, move to a freezing locale and construct a checkpoint from cardboard. It’ll be just like the real thing.
Good luck, comrade.
Kevin Kelly studied film and television at The University of Texas at Austin, before moving to Los Angeles and working at Sony Pictures and The Jim Henson Company in story development. Since turning to writing, Kevin has written about movies at AOL, Slashfilm, The Austin Chronicle, and right here at Film School Rejects. He has also written extensively about video games at Joystiq, G4, and MTV as a staff writer. He is terrible at fighting games, constantly gets crushed in StarCraft 2 multiplayer matches, and spends far too much time playing Infocom interactive fiction classics like Zork 2. You can make fun of him on Twitter @kevinkelly.