Glory to Arstotzka!

"Papers, Please" is simple but brilliant as a dystopian document thriller.

"Papers, Please" is simple but brilliant as a dystopian document thriller. Photo by Courtesy Lucas Pope

One of the best things about gaming's burgeoning indie niche is that it frees developers to explore video games as conceptual art. Some of the best moments of interactivity in recent years have come from the intersection of imagination and a complete disregard for what makes a competitive commercial product. Which brings us to "Papers, Please," an unfinished one-man operation about authoritarian border control and you.

"Papers, Please" bills itself as a "dystopian document thriller," which is a pretty damned accurate description. More specifically it's a retro-style simulation of a newly opened border checkpoint on the western rim of a Communist country called Arstotzka. The lucky young proletariat you control is the winner of October's job lottery, and is now responsible for the checkpoint's inspections. Passports, permits and other documentation have to be carefully checked for omissions and inconsistencies. Over the course of the month, the changing political climate and regional events test the player's attention to detail and swiftness in welcoming legal immigrants and travelers and screening out all the rest.

The mechanics are simple but brilliant. The player has a very limited amount of time to do his job each day, but his income is dependent on a high number of successful calls, with penalties for each mistake. Each night the player balances his savings with the cost of rent, food and medicine, to ensure his extended family stays in good health. Every day new regulations and requirements are added, further challenging the player to keep up the pace and creating an undeniable tension as each traveler trudges past the checkpoint-- perhaps to the sound of a fine being levied on the player who screwed up. The increasing complexity really adds to the clutter on your tiny government desk, and this seems intentional. Very quickly the player is made to feel he lacks the time, space and training necessary to succeed. There's a real aura of misery to the game, and it works.

"Papers, Please" captures the crude artistry of '80s gaming in its pixelated portraiture and its harsh, moody color scheme. The title track plods along deliberately, much like the game's faceless hero, and everywhere else sound is particularly sparse. There's little to see or hear other than the shuffling of papers, the metallic grinding of the checkpoint gates and the garbled non-speech of the immigrants and the protagonist. If all this sounds a little underwhelming, don't be fooled. There's more character and personality in the two static tones of any given migrant's face than you'll find in most big-budget titles.

This is where the game exceeds all expectations. In the midst of all the player's frustration and anxiety about his own performance, his half-game, half-narrative borne desire to support his family, deeply human moments occur. A lovable conman returns day after day, never quite able to forge the documents right. An immigrant girl asks for protection from a man she fears will prey on her. A married couple flees from persecution and a clerical error demands one be sent back to die. The player's rubber stamp hovers over all of these stories, and the effortlessness with which the game convinces you to identify with them is incredible.

"Papers, Please" recently was greenlit for full production, but the developer, Lucas Pope, offers the beta on Steam Greenlight for free until the game's release.

Arstotzka welcomes you.

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