My brother recently urged me to play Papers, Please. A $10 game off Steam, created by just one very talented person, Lucas Pope. It is one of the best examples of a game that proves you don’t need expensive graphics that is hanging off the cliff of the uncanny valley to be immersive, but using great storytelling and gameplay.
The intensity of the story and atmosphere that this game produce only with pixel art is just brilliant, and it all took place at one location - my tiny border checkpoint station. The choices I made in this game really had an effect on me like no other. Telltale’s The Walking Dead’s choices are equally difficult but they gave me a different kind of emotional response. As much as I love the zombie apocalypse genre, it is not real. The kind of oppressive government in Papers, Please carries a more realistic punch.
I was playing an unnamed citizen of Astotzka, a communist country in the 80s. After a long war with a neighbouring country, they finally opened up the borders. I was selected by a job lottery to be an immigration inspector. Astotzka has patriotic phrase that every government official seems to end their conversation with, “Glory to Astotzka”. I decided that it should come with a special salute to go with it.
My job was to spot invalid documents and decide to approve or deny entrant’s entry. The amount I earn is determined by the number of entrants I process correctly within 12 in-game hours, which can occasionally be interrupted. I can also be penalised out of my paycheck by my mistakes. The money I earned was then used to support the living expense of my family. If I run low on money (which can easily happen), my family member could get cold, hungry, or sick and eventually die. Despite only knowing them via their statuses by the end of each level, I feel a strangely strong responsibility to keep them alive and well. (My son died on my first playthorugh and I felt horrible)
The game has a very nice steady upward difficulty curve. It started off just denying all foreigners, but once they opened the border up to them and the subsequent events that happened, new rules and documentations are added everyday. Soon, my tiny desk were covered in documents every time an entrant tries to get their green visa stamp. The government I am working becomes increasingly unlikable as their paranoia and oppression grew just like the list of rules after every level.
Part of the gameplay, and my favourite, requires you to point out the entrants’ discrepancy when you spot them, so they can have a chance to explain or doom themselves, similar to pointing out the contradictions in Phoenix Wright.
The game is also about choices. While some choices do not have much of an effect on the story because the entrants come and go, but the choices I made really stuck with my conscience.
From this point on, this post will contain spoilers so I am going to tell you straight up: Get the game and play it. It is bloody great. If you have no intention of playing this game, then read on…
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Every now and then, I was presented with an entrant who has a sob story, desperate to get in the country just to stay alive. For instance, one woman begged me to let her in because if she’s sent back, she would be killed. At that point, I was focusing on doing my job right to have enough to support my family, so with a heavy heart, I denied them for not having the right paper work.
Later in the game, a very friendly and humorous regular who has been quite a character shows up with the correct documents, but I spotted that he was carrying drugs. When I questioned him, he admitted it cheerfully. Since I quite like his character, I decided to let him through.
Immediately after, I came to a horrible realisation: I condemned poor innocent souls to death, but let a drug smuggler through because he was likeable regular! At that point, it became obvious to me that my moral compass is completely out of whack (more so than usual).
I had become a corrupted government employee. I had abused the power of my stamps, and I wasn’t even using it for good. This realisation hit me like ton of bricks.
They later gave me the power to detain people. I naturally detained people who had fake documentations because I reckon the source of those fake passports should be looked into. Most of these detainees make a big deal about being taken away for questioning. I assumed it was because he was intimidated by the sudden closing of the shutters and the two guards taking them away, which seemed excessive.
I was wrong. I later read somewhere that the people who were detained were actually sent to political prison camps.
I went into another shock realisation. This time it was not only about my own moral, but also my gullibility. I felt guilty because now that I think about it, those people didn’t even seemed to know that their documents were fake.
As the governments paranoia grew, so does the amount of cross-examination I had to do. If their gender or weight do not seem to match the documents, I would have to subject them to a scanner that takes photos of their naked body. From those photos I could verify they are not smuggling anything, or the most awkward of all, verify their gender.
I have no problem looking at a naked body because I go to life drawing regularly, but when a person looking absolutely like a man comes through with a passport that says female and I had to ask if he’s a woman then look at a picture of their head on a naked female body… It gets all kinds of awkward, and it is something you cannot look away from, not in a good way.
With such an oppressive government, rebel group naturally spawns and seek my help. It was actually a no-brainer to help their cause by yielding my stamps of almighty power.
As the story progresses, I could see that their operations are progressing. It felt good to be take part in it like a secret agent, that is until MASSIVE SPOILER they asked me to do a task later that day that will result in my arrest. The sacrifice mission took me by surprise. I instantly fell into a state of confusion and panic. After the agent left me with that message, the day immediately resumed like nothing happened, but I absolutely could not focus on my work. All I could think about was weighing my options until that moment comes.
It struck me at the moment was that it genuinely got to my emotion. Even though I knew it was a game, that sudden request had the same effect on me as if it was real.
This is one hell of a game. It truly took me into a world where I actually cared about my difficult choices. It put me in situations that made me question the kind of person I am and forced me to have a hard look at myself.
Another fascinating thing is when I watched other people’s playthroughs, I noticed people are all playing it differently for different reasons. When I saw the players making choices similar to mine, I had an outsider perspective of what I did.
Game is unique from other story medium because it is interactive. It should be able to give you choices and produce different results based on how you play it. Paper, Please has done this and then some. It reveals to you what kind of person you are, and to be able to do so in the simplest of ways is just brilliant. In my opinion, Paper, Please is everything a game should be