‘Papers, Please’ Almost Gave Me a Nervous Breakdown
This game from creator Lucas Pope explores a little known aspect of war—which awakens some unpleasant memories
This story originally appeared on Sept. 18, 2013.
“Papers, Please,” I said. The man slid his passport, work permit, immunization records and entry permit across my desk. I took them and looked them over, hunting for discrepancies. His passport was expired. I denied him entry into the country. He protested. I called the guards. He refused to leave my booth and the guards entered, clubbing him in the head with the butt of their rifle before dragging him away. I swept the papers off my desk and pushed the button to call the next person in line. I don’t remember the man’s name.
This is the world of Papers, Please, an indie game developed by Lucas Pope and released in August for the PC and Mac. The setting is the bleak and generic fictional Eastern Bloc country of Arstotzka. The year is 1982 and war, unrest and civil conflict tear through the neighboring countries.
The game begins when the player is informed they’ve been chosen, at random, to act as a border agent along the country’s western edge. The job seems simple at first: check travelers’ passports to make sure nothing funny is going on and either approve or deny their entry. But the tension mounts as more complicated rules and paperwork are added every day, and the player is reminded through newspapers and sporadic bouts of intense violence how much is at stake.
Halfway through my play through I began drinking. The game conjured painful memories. I have — in some ways — done this all before.
Just another day at work. Papers, Please capture
Art imitates life
Several years ago I worked as a loss-prevention agent for a large, multinational clothing corporation. As an agent, my duties were a bizarre mix of detective and security guard. On paper, the agent’s job is to prevent material loss to retail locations through the use of approved means. In reality, I often sat in a chair in a dank dark office, watching a bank of closed-circuit television monitors and trying to decide who looked like they might try to steal something.
The life of a border agent in Papers, Please is similar. The player experiences life from their booth, going over yards of paperwork, getting paid next to nothing, and watching an ever increasing tide of human traffic try to force their way into the country as war and disease ravages the region.
The pace of the game is punctuated by political intrigue and the occasional terrorist attack, but much of the game is — by design — tedious and boring. People pass before your desk. You make sure their paperwork is in order and you let them go through or you send them packing.
My life as a loss prevention agent was also punctuated by moments of occasional excitement. I’ve been backed into a corner by a woman wielding a straight razor she pulled from under her tongue. I’ve been in a car chase on a highway. I’ve watched grown men cry like children.
But these moments of brief excitement were few and far between. People walked into the store. I tracked them while they shopped and I made sure they paid for their purchases. Most people do.
The swell of applicants. Papers, Please capture
The man behind the nightmare
Lucas Pope — sole developer of Papers, Please — has created a game that captures the feeling of dread that comes from judging and processing your fellow humans. I emailed him to find out how he did it. The artwork of the game is brilliant. It’s a simple, retro 8-bit design that distills the essence of Eastern Bloc landscapes. He replied:
My primary goal with the art was to portray the bleak setting simply and effectively. Because I had to do the art, programming, music, design and sound, I needed to work efficiently on each component. The simple pixel style made it easier to represent the oppressive setting and to design the large number of documents in a clear and concise way. This same restrained style extended to the music and sound.
Dystopian thrillers set against a Soviet-style communist backdrop is a running theme for Pope. His other games are just as low-tech and effective. The Republia Times casts the player as editor-in-chief of a newspaper in one of Arstozka’s neighboring countries and 6 Degrees of Sabotage invites the player to review camera footage in order to uncover the identity of a terrorist.
I asked him where he drew his inspiration from.
The initial inspiration came from watching airport immigration inspectors at work. The shuffling of papers and correlation with their computer screens looked like fun work. When developing the idea more, I thought about common spy fiction that involves slipping through security checkpoints undetected. The Bourne films are a good example of this. Instead of following the hero I thought it’d be interesting and fun to play as the other side, working to catch the spies, criminals, terrorists and smugglers trying to slip through.
This drug smuggler was the kindest man I met. Papers, Please capture
Leaving it all behind
Towards the end of Papers, Please I found myself dealing with a level of stress I was unaccustomed to in video games.
Half a dozen pieces of paper needed to be cross referenced for every applicant trying to enter the country. Are they missing a current polio vaccination? Deny them entry. Are they a citizen of Arstozka re-entering the country? Better confiscate their passport. Are they on the list of most wanted criminals? They must be detained. Is their weight different from what’s on record? They may have contraband. Better put them through the body scanner.
All of this runs on a timer. The player is a paid according to how many people are processed, regardless of whether the applicant enters the country or is denied. Mistakes means your pay is docked and a mounting pile of citations to clutter up your already cluttered counter.
And so it was that I found myself scanning the paperwork in a cursory way, denying and approving people on instinct, just trying to get through the day. I was numb to it. There were too many variables. I gave up on the game and just went through the motions.
Just like I did when I worked as a loss prevention agent. At a certain point I stopped preventing theft and started going through the motions.The solitude coupled with the dehumanizing element of spying on people while they shopped broke me. I still showed up to work in the flesh, but my mind was gone. Numb, I stalked the halls of malls like a ghost and watched millions of shoppers glide through my stores through the uncomfortable glow of CCTV.
Papers, Please took me back to that place. As a video game it’s stressful and often unpleasant, but as a piece of art it’s arresting and effective. Lucas Pope has captured the horror and doldrums of the gatekeepers of the world. I’m glad he kept the experience brief. I don’t know how much more of it I would have been able to handle.