Papers, Please: a game of rubber stamping
I travel over the Canada-US border a lot — at least once a month — and because of that I’ve developed a healthy fear of border guards. In most cases they’re somber yet polite, but occasionally a guard is cranky and there are few worse feelings than realizing that you just became their unlucky target.
(As as aside, I do have a good border guard story. One time a few years ago the guard asked why I was travelling to Seattle, and I told him I was going to hang out with people I met in World of Warcraft. He jovially responded, “World of Warcraft?! That game is for babies. Real gamers play Everquest II.”)
It was because of all my border experiences that Papers, Please by Lucas Pope caught my eye. Described as a “Dystopian Document Thriller”, the game is still in beta and just yesterday was accepted to Steam through the Greenlight program.
In Papers, Please you play the border guard at a checkpoint in some imaginary Eastern European-esque country. Your job is, quite simply, to not let the wrong people into your country. In practice this is much more difficult than it sounds.
There are a myriad of things to check with each person, including matching up their documented height and weight, work visa details, interviews about the purpose of their visit, and much more. You’re aided by a system to check discrepencies (for example, clicking on the passport photo and then on the person in front of you will confirm or deny that they are the same person) and a resource book that lists things like the various valid passport issuers in this imaginary region.
As if that wasn’t stressful enough, you have 9 in-game hours at your post each day and you’re only paid for how many people you process during that time. The result is a careful balancing act of accuracy and speed. Go too fast and you’ll let in the wrong people and be fined. Go too slow and you can’t pay your heating bill and your family slowly freezes to death. (I’m not even joking — you get family status updates at the end of each day.) Sometimes your office hours will be cut short by a rogue protester rushing the gates, or you lose precious time conducting long strip searches for contraband.
There were moments when I wanted to let someone in I shouldn’t, rules be damned, like when I had to split up a husband and wife. This game isn’t as realistically bleak as something like Cart Life, but it also revels in its stern Cold War atmosphere.
I really enjoy puzzle games, particularly logic and observation puzzles, and this is a fun one. Although the graphics are pretty basic, it has solid atmosphere and gameplay, and yes, actually gave me a little sympathy for my real life border guards. I can’t say that this game would keep me occupied for more than an hour or two in it’s current state, although more content has been promised in the final version, but considering it’s free right now that’s a fine deal.