Indie game developer Lucas Pope coins his game, Papers, Please, as “a dystopian document thriller.” Designed to emulate the challenges of immigration regulation and border control, Papers, Please has also been labelled a “serious game” or “puzzle video game.” Pope split the game into two sections: “story mode” and “endless mode.” Story mode has 20 alternate endings based on the players’ choices. Endless mode provides a traditional gaming experience with a scoreboard, minus most of the narrative elements. This entry is focused on “story mode.”
Papers, Please is set in the year 1982 within a fictional totalitarian government reminiscent of the Soviet Union. Players are placed in the role of an immigration officer assigned to a border checkpoint. Visually, Papers, Please has nostalgic, 1980’s graphic style, which aligns well with the narrative’s time period. The audio of the game begins with a somber, dark anthem, and dialogue is voiced in an incoherent foreign language, translated and transcribed in English across the screen.
The object of the game is simple: Review documents against current regulations and stamp “approved” or “denied” on the passport. As the game progresses, ever-changing policies and visa requirements grow in complexity and the job becomes increasingly difficult. These complications build tension, as player performance impacts the demise of the player’s virtual family.
Notably, unlike action-based video games, the premise of Papers, Please is document analysis, and most of the game is confined to the player’s small virtual desk. Additionally, gameplay of Papers, Please is extremely controlled. While there are a variety of difficult circumstances presented to the player, the choices to act are few – often limited to approving or denying entry. For example, one instance involves an older couple: The husband has the necessary paperwork, but the wife does not. There are no options to help without suffering consequences. The player can either allow the wife into the country and receive a citation or deny entry and split up the pair. Another example involves a woman who states her new boss is in line behind her and will force her into prostitution if he is allowed entry. Unfortunately, he has the appropriate paperwork, and there are no options to arrest or detain him – only to deny or approve entry.
The options to disperse the player’s salary are also limited. Most days end with little money for food and medicine, and often the entire family is sick and hungry. The player is forced to choose which family member will receive medicine at the expense of everyone else.
In “Playing at Empathy: Representing and Experiencing Emotional Growth through Twine Games,” Anastasia Salter notes this characteristic of controlled gameplay through “limitation on choice” in Twine games. Salter identifies this element as an effective means to evoke empathy from the player, stating, “Close play of games made with this system demonstrates that what is essential for emotional representation is not player agency: instead, it is the lack of choice that is most strongly resonant” (47).
Indeed, I found the restrictive options of Papers, Please extremely effective in drawing me emotionally into the complexity of the game’s subject matter. As I played the game, my initial, and rather liberal, inclination was to let most people pass without much question. However, as the citations began to impact my cyber-family’s well-being, I quickly became unforgiving for the smallest inconsistency – regardless of the migrants’ circumstances. Ultimately, my decision to follow the rules became troubling when I was faced with moral dilemmas, such as separating the old married couple.
Within the gaming community, Papers, Please has been received with high regard, and drawn enough attention to inspire a film version due out later this year. In 2014, it won the fourth annual GameCity prize. The Guardian wrote of the win and jury leader, Samira Ahmed, stated, “The jury found this an excellent example of a game with the power to affect people and the way they think about contemporary issues of identity in a subtle but powerful way, and all while effectively holding down a desk job.’”
Certainly, in story mode, through the use of narrative tension and “limitation on choice,” Papers, Please offers unique insight into the challenges of immigration and border control, and cunningly encourages players to invest in the rules while subverting their own beliefs of national identity and immigration bureaucracy.
Papers, Please can be played on Windows, Mac, and Linux operating systems as well as PlayStation Vita and available for purchase and download from Steam, iTunes, or directly from the developer’s site.
Salter, A. “Playing at Empathy: Representing and Experiencing Emotional Growth through Twine Games.” 2016 IEEE International Conference on Serious Games and Applications for Health (SeGAH), 11-13 May, 2016. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc., IEEE Xplore Digital Library.