A couple of weeks ago, I read in one of the gaming blog about a game that piqued my interest, a game about being an immigration officer. The game is called Papers, Please. At first glance, Papers, Please seems like your standard average and so-so game that doesn’t pack a punch, but I can tell you for sure, this game, though not great in graphics, will make you ponders about what makes you a human being.
In Papers, Please, you play as an immigration officer, whose job is to check the required documents and passport to determine whether someone will be granted or denied entry to the country. It is set in the border of the fictitious Eastern Bloc country of Arstotzka during the Cold War. Having just finished a 6-year war with its neighbour Kolechia, Arstotzka finally opens up its border to let people cross over.
Apparently you are lucky enough to have been selected by the lottery, and as a consequence you now have to work as the immigration officer. Over the course of the game, you will find various types of people. There are people who operates a prostitution ring, and also people who will keep bugging you until you let them in (hello, Jorji). Then there are people who simply wants to be reunited with their family, even though they do not have the appropriate documentation.
Of course, as a government officer, you have the responsibility to ensure that each and everyone is verified before you grant them an entry. The problem is, things aren’t always clear cut. You still have your family to be taken care of (your wife, your son, your mother-in-law, and your uncle), you still have bills to pay for, and you still have to buy food to feed your family.
Your salary is based on how many people you processed in a day, with a rate of 5 (five) credits for every person you processed before 6PM. To put things into perspective, I already finished the game and I can only do a maximum of 12 people in a full day. And sometimes the day ends early due to terrorist attack, or someone suddenly decides to jumps over the border.
No contraband allowed. Deny.
Suddenly, you’re contemplating of taking a bribe from someone, just because your son is sick, and you need money to buy medicine. At other times, you might feel sorry for the person who has to undergo a surgery for a life-threatening condition that can be treated only in Arstotzka. The government keeps putting more and more work without salary increase, and you’re probably thinking that you’re better off taking bribes.
You see, these are the things that truly make this game shine. This game puts you and your moral compass to the test, and literally opens up your mind to think that the world doesn’t operate in a black-and-white manner, and that things will go against you.
Okay, I’ll be honest with you. The gameplay is boring. It is boring as heck. But oddly enough, the game IS designed to be boring, because that is the point of the whole game. Are you doing your job as a robot, or are you still a human that can empathise to others?
As an immigration officer, you are given a limited space to work with. You have to drag the documents here and there to check whether a person is verified to enter Arstotzka. And as governments always do, they change rules at their will and give you a ton of additional things to check. As you progress in the game, you will have to check more and more documents. At one point in the game you have to check:
- Valid passport issuance
- Valid passport expiry date
- Valid entry permit, this includes checking the official government seal
- Valid work permit, this includes checking the official government seal
- Valid vaccination certificate, this includes checking whether the person has the correct vaccination for the virus
- Valid ID supplement, this includes checking the physical appearance, height and weight
And those are on top of:
- Cross-referencing each document to the official rule book, and the statement that the person give
- Checking whether the person is on the wanted list or not
- Checking whether there are other regulations not listed in the rule book, such as confiscating passport from certain countries
- Checking whether there are other people asking you favours, such as letting in their significant other
- And finally stamping the passport with either grant or deny (in which case, you will have to provide reason for denial)
If that sounds overwhelming, it is. A typical process will go along the line: a person come to the booth, handing you the papers. You check the validity of the passport, while taking statement from the person. Then you proceed to check the entry permit that the person has, cross-referencing it with the passport details, person’s statement, as well as the rule book.
You then match the physical description of the person and the ID supplement. If at any point there is a discrepancy, you will have to either ask for fingerprint, x-ray search, or detain the person. And after you’ve made the decision to grant or deny, here comes the next person.
Wait, did I let him in yesterday?
The game does provide a couple of upgrade option, to simplify the process and making it “easier”. However it is still a hard thing to do. Suddenly your day-to-day job becomes a habit and you can instantly recognise a false document without cross-referencing the rule book. Or suddenly, you find it odd that one person has it all in proper order, hoping that you didn’t get a warning from the ministry.
The game itself provides you with multiple endings. In total there are 20 (yes, twenty) different endings that you can try. It also provides you with a very useful way of “branching” your decisions, as your game is saved at the start of every day, just like most of the Japanese visual novel games. And yes, the game, although boring, is quite addictive.
In the graphics department, Papers, Please uses what we call an 8-bit graphics, or pixel-art type graphics. The colours are somewhat washed out and looks grim, and it’s very pixelated. Obviously this goes with the overall theme that the game is set in post-war era (their war with Kolechia), and even the colour palette will instantly reminds you that you’re working for an authoritative and communist government.
Pixelated graphics somehow made a prominent comeback in the last few years, especially in gaming. There are times where you’d think that they’re using these kind of graphics as a sign of lazyness, but there are also games that uses pixel-art graphics and it actually blends well with the game, just like Papers, Please.
And even though the graphics are pixelated, they’ve done a pretty damn good job of pixelating almost everything, yet still making every person that comes into your booth different. There are some characters who are instantly recognisable, and it is useful because at one point in the game you’ll need to check whether that person is on the wanted list or not. There’s also pixel-art nudity and violence involved in the game. You can turn off the nudity, but you can’t turn off the violence.
The theme music for the game is just perfect. First time you play the game, you’re greeted by somewhat grand-yet-dark theme, which by the way, will make you realise this game is going to be set in one of dictatorial countries. There aren’t a lot of music when you’re doing your daily job though, most of the time you’ll hear people muttering and nothing much, just like a real immigration officer.
There are games that provide you with a highly-addictive and fun mechanics. There are also games that give you a good memorable experience, just like Journey. Well, Papers, Please seems to mix them both and reinvent them. I think it is safe to say that this is the only boring game that is worth playing. It totally redefines what the term “boring game” is, and it gives you a sad-but-real memorable experience.
That’s the beauty of the game. You don’t instantly realise it, but the moment you stop playing it, sit back, and think of it, it makes you wonder how much our life actually is being played exactly like this very game. Glory to Arstotzka.
Papers, Please is available for PC and Mac through Steam, GOG, or Humble Store.
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Images courtesy of Papers, Please Wikia