2013 has been a remarkable year for the videogame narrative. From The Last of Us to Bioshock: Infinite, the boundaries of storytelling in this interactive genre have been pushed further than many gamers would have ever thought possible.
On the other-end of the videogame development budget scale comes Paper’s Please, a solo project by indie developer Lucas Pope which proves that immersive and emotional storytelling can be done without the need for fancy visuals or sound design.
This description might seem a bit grandiose given that the title seems like a paperwork and rubber stamping simulator for a 32-bit console at first glance, but Papers, Please raises the bar of originality and emotional characterisation to a level that is rarely seen in this genre of entertainment.
Taking place in the fictional nation of Arstotzka, a communist state inspired by the former Soviet Union block of nations, the unnamed protagonist is “rewarded” with a job as an immigration officer at a border checkpoint after winning a national labour lottery.
The duties of your newfound occupation are clear: approve entry for legitimate entrants whilst denying those who lack the appropriate documentation or who deliberately attempt to thwart the system with fraudulent paperwork.
Your wages are determined by the number of people you legitimately admit or deny for the correct reasons. If you admit someone with incorrect documentation such as an expired passport or a falsified name, you will be warned, and repeated mistakes will result in a wage deduction.
The lower your salary, the harder it is for the player to pay for expenses which your family relies upon such as rent, food, heating and medicine. Being unable to pay for these will result in illness and even the death of your family.
As the game progresses however, it becomes far more difficult to identify legitimate entrants, with the player being required to cross check more and more documents as the geopolitical situation of the region changes.
A terrorist attack on the border, for instance, will force all non-Arstotzkans to carry an additional entry form, whilst a polio outbreak in a neighbouring country will force all entrants to carry valid immunisation papers. These new rules keep gameplay challenging and varied enough to prevent the game from feeling too repetitive.
By forcing the player to check several documents at once for a single discrepancy, mistakes can and will often be made, pushing the player into a position where taking bribes or participating in unauthorised conduct may be the only way to support your family.
Whilst the washed out colour palette, simple visuals and minimalist sound design of Papers, Please may look out-dated at first glance, the combination of the game’s simple presentation matches the bleak personal situation faced by the protagonist as well as the dire conditions faced by those attempting to get into Arstotzka.
One woman slips you a note, begging you to deny entry to a man close behind her in the queue, claiming that he will force her into prostitution if he is admitted into the country. That man’s paperwork is naturally all in order.
Another scenario will force the player to decide whether to unite or separate a married couple when discovering that the wife is missing an essential immigration document. Sympathising with these situations would of course threaten the unpredictable daily salary that your family relies on.
Some of these choices will have wider ramifications than others, with the combination of various decisions made by the player resulting in one of game’s twenty different endings. Whilst some of these are only slight variations of each other, the grey spectrum of these possible endings is incredibly diverse.
Certain players who are intent on following a particular “good” or “bad” path will be forced to execute morally questionable actions. Prioritising the wellbeing of your family, for instance, will put you in a position where your decisions will condemn the lives of other citizens trapped in less than ideal situations.
Whilst the often tedious paperwork-based gameplay may be an aversion for some gamers, for others, Papers, Please is the very definition of why indie videogame development remains necessary for continuing to push innovation and originality in a medium that is often filled with uninspired sequels to generic videogame IPs.
Papers, Please will easily sit among my personal favourite games for 2013.
Papers, Please is available on PC and Mac