This article originally appeared in Volume XX, Issue IV of The University Observer’s Otwo supplement and online at universityobserver.ie
Lucas Pope’s document thriller is unlike anything else
Papers, Please, from lone developer Lucas Pope, shouldn’t work. Despite this seemingly glaring flaw, not only does it work, it actually excels at something very few other games do; creating a genuine sense of tension without having to resort to bombastics. While the descriptor of Papers, Please, which terms it as a “document thriller,” may seem like a paradoxical misnomer at first, it couldn’t be more appropriate.
The year is 1982, and the setting is the fictional Eastern European country of Arstotzka. Players take on the role of a low-ranking citizen who has been tasked with the job of working passport control on the reopened border.
In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, Papers, Please is comparable to very few other games. Hopeful entrants approach the border office and whether or not they pass through is entirely the player’s choice. Documents need to be inspected to guarantee their validity, a procedure that starts out simple, but quickly becomes a complex and pressurised task.
All of this is happening against the clock, as wages are calculated based on how many people are processed each day. The Ministry of Admissions is, however, always watching and too many deviations from protocol, intentional or otherwise, can result in a monetary penalty.
Money feeds into the meta-game, an allocation of scant resources to ensure all family members are kept in good health. It’s possible to purchase booth upgrades, which should facilitate faster processing and consequently more income. Yet it’s easy to slip into a mood of complacency where the temptation of a greater reward ends up actually diminishing it.
The power of the oppressive world of Papers, Please is made possible in great part due to its visual and audio assets. The game’s introduction, which sees the title card shift slowly into centre screen in time with a knock-off Soviet national anthem, is an appropriate way of establishing the setting.
The largely monochromatic colour scheme never bores thanks to a wonderful artistic attention to detail. The foreboding shadows of the border guards’ rigid animation is one such great visual flourish. There are occasional moments of black humour serving to alleviate, if only slightly, what may otherwise be too suffocatingly grim an atmosphere.
It’s ironic that a tale of suppression of individuality has such a strong personality of its own, and that this is what’s ultimately pivotal in creating the tangible relationship between the player and game. This relationship is what allows the game’s moment-to-moment progression to be wrought with such impressive weight of consequence.
This is an accomplishment in itself, but one that’s even greater when taking into account the comparatively tame and banal premise Papers, Please uses to achieve this great effect.