Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please starts out with a bit of news that would usually be something to jump for joy about: you’ve won the lottery. Except it’s not the Powerball that you’ve won; it’s Arstotzka’s labor lottery.
Congratulations. You and your family have a slightly better chance for survival now that you’ve been employed as an immigration inspector for the communist state. Much like its relatives Cart Lifeand I Get This Call Every Day; Papers, Please is a simulation of a banal, often miserable job. It’s even got a dreary, but more colorful, pixilated aesthetic that’s akin to Cart Life. However, there’s a notable point of divergence: where Cart Life and I GetThis Call Every Day are decidedly anti-fun, Papers, Please is entertaining.
Each level takes place over a single day in 1982, where you man the checkpoint booth and admit or deny entrance to immigrants trying to get to Arstotzka (Pope’s version of Cold War-era Berlin) for various reasons. The game begins with immigrants only needing valid passports, which can easily be checked by making sure the license hasn’t expired and that the immigrant’s nationality matches where the passport was issued—you refer to a map for that—but as terrorist attacks occur, security measures intensify. Soon immigrants need passports, IDs, tickets, worker licenses and the game becomes a bit more challenging because you have to juggle all these elements. You have to check maps, compare dates and times, and ask immigrants for documents they haven’t presented. It’s genuinely fun to try and figure out which of the immigrants’ passports are frauds or when they’re lying.
However, as someone who grew up during the post-9/11 security frenzy and who teaches a research & rhetoric course that deals with stereotyping and profiling, the fact that I’m enjoying playing as an immigration inspector who may be inadvertently handing death sentences to these huddled masses is unnerving to the nth degree.
Two cases stick out to me, in particular. The first one is about a mother and her son. She hasn’t seen her offspring in six years, she tells me. The day before this, there was a terrorist attack near the booth, so I’m on the defensive, being overly cautious. I have a son who’s sick at home, after all. I can’t lose this job or be fined, otherwise I might not be able to afford his medicine. The date on her passport has expired.
I don’t take any chances. She curses me and walks away from the booth. I tell myself I made the right choice. Two days later, my son is dead.
Later, A man approaches the booth and I admit him into Arstotzka. As he goes, he says “Please be kind to my wife. She’s next in line.”
The woman is portly and blue. She gives me her passport but lacks some other vital papers. I ask her for them. She begs me, says she couldn’t get them, that if she goes back to the old country they’ll kill her. She seems harmless. I am, as the player—not the character— legitimately moved. I grant her admittance into Arstotzka. She blesses me and tells me she won’t forget it. I hope Arstotzka turns out to be a better place for her and her husband.
Several moments later, I receive a warning from a mysterious source for letting someone into the country without papers. Totally worth it, I decide.
My uncle dies that night. The world is an unkind place, I suppose.
Papers, Please is quite the experience so far, and I urge everyone to give it a spin, especially since the game’s in free, playable beta form right now. But before you go, Lucas Pope was kind enough to take some time to answer some of our questions about Papers, Please:
CM: How long have you been developing games?
LP:For around 15 years. I started a small game company called Ratloop with friends in the late 90’s. We struggled for a number of years before going our separate ways. After that I did some time at different game studios before becoming restless. The rise of digital distribution has really changed everything when it comes to games so a few years ago I left my cushy AAA job to focus on small personal projects full time.
CM: How was Papers, Please conceived and how long has it been in development?
LP:I live in Japan and do a fair bit of international travel. Going through airport immigration is always a tense experience and I thought the whole setup could be molded into something fun. There’s tension, documents, suspicion, spies, terrorists, empathy, etc. All kinds of elements that mix together well to build game mechanics and tell a story. I started working on it mid-November last year. If you’re curious, I’ve kept a detailed devlog that chronicles the project from the very start.
CM: The Steam Greenlight page describes the game as a “A Dystopian Document Thriller,” which accurately describes my experience with the game. It’s an interesting simulation that shares traits with other notable games that are concerned with mundane, soul crushing jobs like Cart Life and I Get This Call Every Day, except Papers, Please is actually fun. The fact that I enjoyed playing a gatekeeper admitting or denying entrance to disheveled, broken people is disturbing, though. There were even a handful of NPCs who talked about not having seen their families in years, but the detective element of the game still makes it fun despite the horror I have when, in some cases, I had to turn them away. Was it your purpose to make that entertainment discomforting to the player?
LP:Whenever I think about game design, I always put the mechanics first. My priority is basically: Make it fun, then make it mean something. It was only after I felt the core document-comparison mechanics in “Papers, Please” were fun that I started thinking about how to take it further. Limiting the player’s story influence to approve, deny, and detain helps with keeping the focus on the OCD document stuff. The setup itself is fertile ground for tough choices and I’m just lucky enough that the gameplay balances it out.
CM:What are your thoughts on cultural spats concerning indie games, specifically non-gaming culture’s attitude toward games that obviously aren’t meant to be played for a thrill? For example, David Gallant lost his job after I Get This Call Every Day started getting attention, and Apple refuses to let an “uncomfortable” game like Sweatshopinto to its App store. As a developer, what do these incidents say to you about the power of our medium?
LP:I think this is just a generational thing. The young generation now has grown up with games since day one. They play more games than ever and the idea of learning something or finding mature or non-traditional themes in a game is completely normal. Once the older generation’s voice dies down, it’ll be clear that games can be about anything. For me personally, the interactivity afforded by games makes them a much more effective medium, especially for empathy, than non-interactive books or movies. I hope Papers, Please is a good example of that.
CM: Earlier you mentioned several interesting elements about travel that helped you mold the game, like suspicion, terrorism, which are themes that seem to be shared amongst your older games as well—6 Degrees of Sabotage and The Republia Times. These games have a John le Carré vibe to them. What is it about these themes that interest you?
LP:That’s a good question. Not sure I have a good answer. I read Orwell’s 1984 a long time ago and really enjoyed it. I guess those themes just come a little easier for me. I’m naturally OCD so building a world ruled by rigid systems imposes a structure that I like.
CM: One of the interesting meta aspects of Papers, Please is that you’re actually inviting players to submit their names to be included as immigrant names in the game. Beyond being a nifty way to bring the community into the game’s design, is there another purpose behind that decision?
LP:Sort of. Using so many different names in an incidental way is pretty rare for a game. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to get players more involved and so spent a few days setting up the name submission page. Due to the setting, the game works best with eastern-bloc style names. As part of the submission I ask players to easternblockenize their name before submitting. Out of pure luck that adds some fun roleplay to the process which I didn’t foresee. Including player names also gives me a great way to thank certain individuals for their help on the project. The vast majority of submitted names go into the random pool but I can pull out select ones and assign them to a scripted character which is guaranteed to show up on every story playthrough. As a one-person development team, I get a lot of help from players with ideas and testing and this gives me a nice way to show my appreciation.
CM:There’s been a lot of mixed commentary from indie developers on Steam Greenlight? Can you talk about your experience with it and Papers, Please thus far?
LP:Honestly it’s hard for me to form a complete opinion right now. This is my first Greenlight title. Based on the stats and feedback it’s going pretty well so far; the yes/no split is about 60%/40%. Doesn’t sound that great but according to the references Valve provides, this matches the average split for the top 50 games on Greenlight. Even though the game isn’t for everyone, creating the Greenlight page has been a good way to publicize it.
As a way to just get on Steam, I’m not that crazy about how bare the competitive nature of Greenlight is. When it comes to simply being available for sale there’s only upside to having lots of great games together. Unlike expensive AAA titles, a purchase of one indie game doesn’t preclude picking up a few others. Especially given player interests and the current world of indie bundles and sales. A better system might be to just establish a minimum level of quality and let anything above that onto Steam. That initial quality check could even use a quick public voting system to lighten Valve’s load. The problem with the current system is that if Papers, Please is greenlit, it will push back some other worthy game; which sucks. I understand Valve’s need to control their costs though so it’s hard for me to criticize too strongly.
CM: Papers, Please in an open beta right now. Do you have a release and pricing estimate for the final version of the game?
LP:I’m hoping to wrap everything up in a month or two and release it this summer. The pricing isn’t decided yet since it depends on what I’ve got when the whole game is done. I’m pretty sure it’ll be less than $15 USD.
The beta of Papers, Please can be downloaded here. The game’s Steam Greenlight page can be found here.
When he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel, Javy devotes his time to writing about these video game things. He's a contributor and the former game editor at CultureMass. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter feed @JavyIV.