It’s safe to say that the gaming industry is currently enjoying a sort of renaissance when it comes to indie games. Not since the flash minigames and mods of the early 21st century has there ever been such an avalanche of new and innovating game forms, unbound by the common publishing hesitations of marketing or returning a profit. Thanks in large part to crowdsourcing platforms like Steam’s Greenlight, Good Ol Games, IndieGoGo, and Kickstarter, individual or small teams of developers can find an audience for their work and be elevated to the same digital store front shelves occupied by triple-A titles like Call of Duty or GTA. There are thousands of games that come and go through these services, some innovative and many derivative, but every so often one will shine through the rest and get the attention it dearly deserves. Lucas Pope‘s Papers, Please is one of those games, and it’s one of the most unique to come along in a while.
It’s a simple concept. You play an immigration official manning a border checkpoint for a Cold War East- European-esque communist country. Over thirty days, you either approve or deny applicants looking to get into the country, examining their passports and documents and hearing their pleas for entry or other matters. For a brief period their life rests in your hands, and one small slip could mean the difference between denying a refugee or approving a neighboring Kolechian terrorist. At the end of each day you receive money for the number of people processed, as well as any bribes or penalty reductions, which you then use to pay for rent, heat, and food for your family. The game penalizes you for missing discrepancies, forgoing government policy, or not approving viable immigrants, deducting much needed cash that could be used to buy medicine for your sick son. The game has been receiving rave reviews, many noting how the race to process immigrants and beat the shift clock for just a few extra dollars can lead to your personal approval of unsettling acts of authoritarian power. It weaves a subtle commentary that you only notice after becoming personally invested. But purely as a game, there are many aspects that set Papers, Please apart from your normal crop of indie titles, which make you appreciate how well it seamlessly blends all its ideas, inspirations, and gameplay together into one entertaining and enlightening product.
It’s hard to describe Papers, Please as difficult. It’s difficult in the same way that filing taxes is difficult. There are no actual difficulties to choose from, only gameplay modes, and the ever increasing challenges the game presents you as it goes on don’t look like bigger challenges, just more paper-work. In a day and age when difficulty in games is usually defined as extending an enemy’s healthbar or imparting player death at the whiff of a wrong move, Papers, Please asks you only to take on more responsibilities while expecting the same performance. As any government worker is bound to tell you, added paper-work only amounts to more frustration and mind-numbing hoops to jump through in your daily tasks. P,P harnesses that feeling by throwing in an extra document or procedure just when you think you have your system down and you’re finally breezing through with no errors. The ever-changing rules of who to let in, who to search or detain, and what documents to confiscate pile up to such a point that that the in-game rulebook will inevitably be taking up permanent residence on your main desk workspace.
The difficulty here is not the game’s belligerence or a developer’s malice, but your brain’s own processing speed. When each person processed means another dollar for you, there’s a natural tendency to quicken the pace, skim over details, and cut corners where you can. When you mess up and get a citation for it, you don’t blame the game for taking a cheap shot or presenting some impossible scenario, but instead fault yourself for having missing something as simple as a fake photo or expired passport. When these faults start to add up, it instills an acute sense of paranoia. You hover over the spelling of a name a bit longer, double-check everything before handing it back. and quickly find yourself going through a mental checklist to cover any sort of mess-ups you performed in the past.
But just following the rules isn’t the only path through the game. Being a complete stooge to authority will only net you a few of the twenty available endings, and breaking rules at certain points in the game is expressly required. A negative bank account at the end of the day is an instant game over, so as the final days of your work term approach, you have to carefully manage the various scripted penalties you receive along with the normal crop of mistakes you’re bound to make. Moral choices appear throughout, but unlike other games there’s no time slowing down or big flashy indicator saying “THIS IS AN IMPORTANT MOMENT CHOOSE WISELY!!”. They instead come to you as any other potential immigrant, only with a unique sob story to tell and maybe an extra item for you to keep on your desk or hang on your wall. There were many times where I simply processed someone by the book and only later learned I missed out on collecting an item because of the choice I made.
In this way the game is more of a puzzler or hunt, an effort to find the mole in the high grass before you whack him. You could say P,P has a lot more in common with the old pixel hunt adventure games like Myst, King’s Quest, the Gabriel Knight series, and others, classically PC titles, than to its side-scrolling and shoot-em-up indie brethren, which derive their origins from native arcade and console titles. This expressly PC sort of gameplay also extends to the throwback pixelated graphics, evoking both a feeling of the rapidly outdated eighties computing associated with Cold War regimes and a nostalgia for the digital art-style born from the oppression of minuscule disk space (though you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking indie is synonymous with pixelart these days). The locked resolution, smaller than most native resolutions today, also adds to the oppressive and outdated feel of the game, restricting your desk space and playing as if it was something you found on an old floppy disk in the basement and decided to boot up to see if it still works.
All of this works in conjunction, flowing from a simple premise. Papers, Please is one of the few games that combines innovative gameplay, gripping immersion, and slamming critique so closely that they’re inseparable, each blooming naturally from the other. You can purchase it on Steam or Good Ol Games for cheap, and be sure to check out Lucas Pope’s other indie offerings from his homepage which work along similar themes.