Feel the weight of every decision as a border officer in this outstanding commentary on border politics
- Retro style graphics
- Highly realistic interpretation of border politics
- Unconventional narrative told through the border applicants
- Feel the consequences of each decision, whether to applicants, your salary, your family, etc.
- Clamp down on criminal activity on the border, try to make a difference, or simply play by the rules
- High level of detail for papers
- Challenging skills of observation required
- Dozens of different endings with a ton of replay value
- Gameplay becomes quite repetitive after a while
Papers, Please is an interesting indie game for Mac, developed by Lucas Pope, in which the player works at a border checkpoint of an unspecified Communist nation while clearing or denying entry to various people attempting to cross. The game is available as a demo version only. The full version is available from the main developer.
The Politics of Border Control
Over the years, indie developers have tried to make games about all kinds of things. Ian Bogost, in fact, wrote an entire book on the political power of games and their ability to transform our perceptions. In this case, Papers, Please is a kind of critical commentary on the system of biometrics currently operating in eastern Europe, casting the player in the role of border officer. This is exactly the type of thing that games should attempt, far beyond the conventional tropes that we see in mainstream ones. It casts light on an issue while not naming names and it enables us as players to learn about the system at work implicitly and intuitively, in this case the politics of border control.
In the game, you play as a border officer in an unspecified Communist nation. You are tasked with ensuring that all paperwork submitted by border applicants is free of discrepancies, after which you make the decision to approve or deny their request to cross the border. It's a fairly linear game in this sense but the formula changes quite a bit throughout the game. At first, you will not have much paperwork to deal with: perhaps just a passport, an entry Visa, etc. and no paperwork will clash in any way. As you progress, however, a wide range of individuals will approach you including spies, agents, diplomats, members of resistance movements and many others, each with their own ulterior motives. There is no right or wrong decision here, but certain decisions will prompt a dock in pay and a M.O.A citation summarising your violation.
The story for the game is told rather unconventionally. Rather than having a narrator or a means of guiding the plot, the story is split into the lives of the border applicants - a most unorthodox approach. Each decision you make will develop or hinder a particular plotline or arc, making every decision carry weight. A decision to deny entry to someone might have lasting consequences later on in the game, to the point of contributing to almost two dozen separate endings. This gives the game excellent replay value.
Finding a way to balance justice with your own personal well being and that of your family is part of the fun of this game and by the end of it you will most definitely understand how much of a grey area the border control system is, at least in theory. Other times, you'll be confronted with the reality of your decisions as criminal activities ensue including shootings and bombings right in front of you. Again, you have the option to intervene here, or to simply look the other way
Another interesting dynamic to the game is your motivation for approving certain applicants. Since you have a salary and a family to look after, you are constantly trying to manage the 'sick' or 'hungry' states of your family members while staying afloat yourself. As such, taking the odd bribe from a rich diplomat, agent or whoever else might be the only way to survive. Finding a way to balance justice with your own personal well being and that of your family is part of the fun of this game and by the end of it you will most definitely understand how much of a grey area the border control system is, at least in theory. Other times, you'll be confronted with the reality of your decisions as criminal activities ensue including shootings and bombings right in front of you. Again, you have the option to intervene here, or to simply look the other way. The dynamic is quite fascinating.
Graphics and Visuals
Given how simple the gameplay is, graphics are presented in quite a retro, 16-bit style, with immigrants, papers and a representation of the border at the top of your screen all being presented in a low-resolution, dull set of colors. The papers themselves all look quite different and while they're not hugely detailed, the numbers and text that matter are well placed, adding to the sense of realism. The first-person perspective and the static nature of sitting at the same desk all day adds to the realism here, particularly the familiar faces of repeat applicants.
The one thing to say about this game is that it approaches a highly complicated issue in a very unique and straight forward way. That said, after a while the gameplay definitely becomes a bit repetitive, particularly in the full version of the game. Even so, the story arcs for characters, the micromanagement of decisions, the consequences of every approval or denial - all of these factors make the game interesting from the outset. Although it's difficult to place this game, the process of controlling the entry of border applicants is a learning experience in itself and while it might not seem that interesting it has a strange kind of appeal. If you're a follower of the indie genre, this game is definitely worth checking out.