Monday, August 19, 2013

Papers, Please review – a lesson in bureaucracy

Every day I do the same thing. I wake up and walk to work at the edge of Arstotzka, where the border has finally re-opened after six years of war with neighboring nation Kolechia. I should feel lucky. Thanks to the labor lottery, my family and I have a place to live, and I have a job to support them. It’s not a luxurious position, but I can help keep the borders safe by detaining criminals, denying foreigners with forged papers, or identifying terrorists. Glory to Arstotzka!

This is Papers, Please. Described by its creator as a dystopian document thriller, it’s a lesson bureaucracy, stress, and struggles while still finding a way to be fun and challenging.

The rules are simple: examine each person’s paperwork to make sure they are legit and claim who they claim to be. If so, approve and let them in. If not, deny and send them away. But the rules begin to change almost every day as new restrictions are handed down from the Ministry of Admission, adding permits, tickets, vaccinations, and other ancillary documents until each person walking up to your window hands you five to seven pieces of paper.

Despite being a pseudo-communist country, the Arstotzka government pays you per person you see each day. In real time, each day lasts about six minutes, making the ideal a day where you see as many people you can without making a mistake, which can lead to a dock in pay for violations. Striking a balance between spending more time searching for a discrepancy of someone shady, or just sending him or her through to hopefully make up the potential loss in pay with quantity is where the challenge lies. On more than one occasion, an extraneous business card or flyer would come across my desk along with the person’s paperwork, hindering my concentration for a second, and all it takes is a second for mistakes to happen. It’s soul crushing when I heard the screech of a dot-matrix printer spitting out a violation after meticulously going over every detail.

While Papers, Please is playable through mouse alone, it has a distinct tactile feel. Each morning I arranged my desk as I would at a real job, making the best use of the limited amount of desk space for the coming paperwork. I would set the rulebook open to the pages I knew I would be using and keep the day’s bulletin off to the side for quick reference. The approve or deny stamps also have heft and weight, with a slight delay that seals the fate of whomever’s passport is being stamped.

It can quickly become mundane checking the same pieces of information repeatedly, seeing if the person’s weight is the same as it says on their ID card, if their vaccination records are up to date, or if they have a non-expired entry permit. But the mundanity of it all is intended. I’m not a hero out to save the world, or solving puzzles to figure out timeless secrets. I’m an immigrations inspector trying to make enough money so I can keep the heat on and feed my family.

However, with each new change coming down from the bureaucratic Ministry of Admission, an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, new opportunities open up for both yourself and others. If someone offers you a bribe because he doesn’t have the proper documents, do you take it and let them through? The results of your choice may have ramifications later on down the line that makes your job harder, or even puts you in danger. It’s moments like these, when you have to make quick decisions with no way of knowing how they will play out, that makes the day-to-day gameplay tolerant. With 20 different possible endings, Papers, Please creates a scenario where the color of a stamp can shape a country, or tear down walls.

Papers, Please doesn’t look or play like most indie games. Rather than use a retro pixelated aesthetic, it reaches for a look reminiscent of old 90s era DOS games like the early Carmen Sandiego games. The mix of colors and dark shades makes checking passport photos and stamps seem to blur into each other. But by the time I finished Papers, Please, its message was much clearer: Sometimes not doing what you’re told and bending the rules is the right thing to do.

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