There’s high concept, and there’s suspiciously high concept. In the former category are David Cage’s interactive movies, Murdered: Soul Suspect and Thomas Was Alone. In the second category, there rest things like Dear Esther, Dinner Date and, now, Papers, Please.
Now very high concept games can be good – I enjoy Dear Esther immensely, if more for its story and presentation than its game content. But they can also be bad – Dinner Date is either not intended to be serious or some game design students waited until three hours before their project was due in to get it started. My opinion on Papers, Please (that comma is going to get annoying) is hard to quantify as a result. It’s a game really unlike any other, and I’m not sure what exactly it’s trying to do. Let me explain.
Papers, Please tells the story of a nameless worker in the fictional Communist nation of Arstotzka. Winning the October labour lottery, he is posted to the newly-opened border, tasked with letting in the trustworthy and keeping out undesirables. As time goes by, the restrictions on entry become more and more cumbersome and difficult for the entrants, but the worker simply goes about his business until the work day ends.
The player’s role in all this is to inspect documents. This starts simply – viewing passports, checking the photo to the face, as well as the issuing city, then stamping for approval or denial based on whether the information is acceptable. This gets harder – suddenly foreigners are allowed with entry passes, then full permits, then work licenses, and these all have to be verified with one another, using a rather intuitive interface that allows cross-checking of data to spot discrepancies. One noticed, the entrant can be interrogated. Sometimes they will hand over the necessary documents, sometimes they’ll flounder, sometimes they’ll play dumb, but the player makes the call – let in the woman separated from her husband who went through first? Deny her entry and let her try later? Or have the guards haul her off and save your job?
Nobody is pretending this gameplay is fun. It’s tedious and repetitive, and your eyes get so tired you’ll find yourself making plenty of mistakes at first. But it’s also oddly emotional. The oppressive and dull nature of the game actually makes you feel like a citizen of this bizarre state, grinding away fruitlessly while trying to earn enough money to pay your rent and keep your family fed and healthy (this is hard to do). You genuinely feel for those who are suffering to make it into your country – a woman dancing in an exotic bar might hand you information on her trafficker, who you can have arrested, and that feels like you’ve genuinely done good for the world. But sometimes you’ll have to send away someone desperate or a terrorist will attack, and once again it’s all so very bad.
Sometimes you’ll make a mistake and someone with fake documents will get in, and you’ll be chastised by your superiors. Occasionally, you’ll deliberately do this, like with the separated family I mentioned earlier. I had to ask myself, what other game could make the player do this? Deliberately play wrongly in order to act decently for someone who doesn’t really exist? It was while pondering this question that I discovered the real genius of Papers, Please. It’s more than a document-inspection game, it’s a game that makes you experience life on the other side of the glass. The surly border guard is not an evil tool of a regime, he just wants to keep his family healthy. When he turns away a refugee family, it’s because he’s trying to save his own. When the player becomes the bad guy, they learn to understand that the world isn’t a black and white struggle between good and evil but that, like this game’s visuals, grey prevails. You learn to see the compression of the human spirit down into a faceless automaton and feel it too.
I can’t honestly score this game because I don’t know where it would fit on the scale of good and bad. It simply is what it is, an artistic experiment exploring emotions games don’t often aspire to – boredom, guilt, worry. And though it’s not necessarily fun, I can’t help but recommend it. Sometimes, it takes art to make you look at your own view of the world, and your actions in Papers, Please will, I guarantee, make you think.