Adventure games can be rife with illogical puzzles and often dialogues which go on and on without actually presenting something meaningful (except for the outstanding The Cat Lady). Lucas Pope presents with Papers, Please a poignant story of survival in a communist state and shows that mature storytelling doesn’t necessarily require big words to be politically and socially relevant.
Papers, Please (PC)
(USA 2013, developer/publisher: Lucas Pope, platform: PC)
After winning a labor lottery and landing a job as immigration inspector at the Grestin Border Checkpoint which serves as an entry point to the communist state of Arstotzka, one has to decide who can enter, who is send away and who is detained.
Scrutinizing paper people
Before discussing the storytelling, it’s maybe a better idea to give a general overview of what the gameplay is about. As dull and mundane as it sounds, but the aim of every working day is to check if people who want to enter the country have the right papers. This becomes a process of comparing documents according to the rule book which can also change each new day. So one day, certain members of a country have to be searched before giving the okay to cross the border, while on other days, people who want to immigrate and work have to carry a working pass. It’s not only about having the appropriate papers, but also if they’re valid and if they fit the person’s name. Each minute detail, like gender or even weight, can become a reason for rejection or even imprisonment.
If this is all too reminiscent of the copy protection procedures in the old days of adventure gaming, this isn’t far from the truth, and it can become pretty tedious with every new day introducing more things to take into account. But still, despite all the repetitiveness, it becomes addictive and requires quite a lot of attention to detail if one wants to get through a day without receiving any penalties. At some points in the story, some side missions (if they can be called that) are added as well asking the player to give certain documents to people. This isn’t simply a bonus incentive to gain more money, but it ties right into the powerful setting. So if a guard promises to give an extra bank note for detained persons, this action can imply sending people away who had a right to enter the country, only because one is in for making a quick buck. Sympathizing with some people or even fraternizing with an underground organization makes things even more interesting and the daily routine less dull.
Still despite all these nuances in gameplay and the slightly different goals each day, it remains the same game which can get a bit too tricky for its own good. Not only is it slow and cumbersome to check every detail and browse through the rule book, in some instances it’s simply not clear what to do. This is especially true with the investigation tool which lets the player compare documents and people by first clicking on the one and then on the other in order to highlight discrepancies. Unfortunately, this leads to some rather obscure situations in which pointing at an empty desk and then at the rulebook text which says that certain documents have to be presented is required to succeed. Not really that obvious, considering that the game doesn’t help the player in any way other than consulting the rulebook.
Paper stories to tell
Called a dystopian documentary thriller, this sounds as weird as it plays. Being an official border patrol person, the narration isn’t necessarily done by overlong dialogues or cutscenes but by more subtle ways. So even if the player doesn’t know the name or face of the inspector, he always gets a glimpse at his family life and living conditions at the end of the day. A table of payments shows both his income and his expenses like rent, food, heating and in some cases medicine for the other family members. A strange emotional connection is established without giving the player any background info so common in adventure games which can usually lead to rather clichéd situations and less than memorable characters. It also adds a layer of strategy to the more puzzle-heavy gameplay.
The story itself is also handled in a more subtle way than typical adventure games or thrillers in general. It’s more of a drama with an emphasis on politics and the freedom of speech. So even if the gameplay seems to be repetitive at the beginning (and to be frank, the core concept doesn’t change much), more and more personal fates become entangled in the everyday life of the border official, forcing him to make decisions which have an effect on people’s future and his own monetary situation and social standing. The repercussions of one’s actions can be immediate or have an effect on later story developments reflected in the daily newspapers or reprimands or recommendations by superiors.
Paper statements and their political implications
The game does a very good job at posing relevant questions to the player: Do I go by the book and reject a person’s entry pass, because it’s incorrect and therefore separate him or her from a family or loved one? Or do I let him/her through and suffer a penalty and therefore lose money to sustain my own family? Even if there’s usually a certain number of mistakes one can make during one day with no monetary problems, the decisions are nevertheless thought-provoking and much more interesting than what adventure games usually try to do with their good/bad-nice/rude dialogue options.
The atmosphere of the game is also quite unsettling. On the one hand, the gameplay is very repetitive and there’s actually only one screen which displays the waiting line, border patrol and the booth for the individual persons who want to enter the country. But this is exactly why the storytelling works so well, as a lot of things happen behind the scenes. So if a person is detained, he or she is taken away by the guards, and the rest is up to the player’s imagination. Terrorist attacks are not uncommon either, although it has to be said that the random bomb explosions close to the border lose some of their impact, because they seem a bit too random.
The graphics and sound design are quite minimalistic. In other words: It isn’t really a pretty game. Character portraits are drawn in a crude way which can sometimes become troublesome when trying to establish if a person is male or female, while the voice acting (if it can be called that) only consists of the same short sentences, some comprehensible (“Papers”), some indistinguishable. Of course the latter makes the whole monotonous proceedings even scarier. The lack of music (except for the title screen and the table of income/expenses) can also be dismissed, because it doesn’t turn the whole thing into a melodrama, but adds to the realism.
An important game of paper and people
Lucas Poke’s Papers, Please is more than just a simple game of comparing documents and people. It’s one of the few titles which make the player ask questions about politics and human dignity. Even if one is lucky enough to live outside a country which has such powerful control over its people, it’s easy to see the social commentary and feel uncomfortable when playing the game. It’s much more like a meta-game which is as much a critique of immigration laws as it is a bleak look into a dystopian future or reality. The game is also an interesting example of how puzzles don’t necessarily have to be inventory-based conundrums.
Even if the presentation lacks polish, some of the gameplay elements don’t always work and it could have been a bit shorter to prevent overfamiliarity and repetitiveness, Papers, Please remains one of the most interesting storytelling experiences of the year, simply setting itself apart from the competition by trying something new and being relevant at the same time. It might look and sound outdated, but the content is and will be more important than the most suspenseful politics thriller or history drama.
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