E For Everyone: ‘Papers, Please’

Why should you play “Papers, Please” (2013)? Because it’s about immigrants, complicated political situations and empathy. What game could be more relevant right now?

Firstly, if you haven’t heard of “Papers, Please,” it describes itself as “a dystopian document thriller.” I’m sure you’re asking yourself: How on earth can documents be both thrilling and dystopian? Welcome to the Ministry of Admission at the Grestin Border Checkpoint.

You play a man in the 1980s whose name was drawn in a forced labor lottery by the terrifyingly-brutal communist government of Arstotzka. Your job is to process the paperwork of immigrants at the border checkpoint with Kolechia, which Arstotzka recently defeated in a six-year war. You must do your job and get paid to keep your cold, hungry family alive. The catch is that many of these immigrants are good people who, while performing technically-illegal actions, are just trying to get by. They tug at your heartstrings and tempt you to break the rules. For spoiler-avoiding reasons, I won’t mention any particular examples of this.

Part of why this masterpiece is so special is that every element of the game is designed to put pressure on the players to make them think critically about not only their own actions and motivations, but also those of the immigrants. The music, which only plays on the main menu and between levels, is nothing short of overwhelming. Its slow, heavy rhythm and simple-yet-haunting melody fit very well with the theme of monotony dovetailed with pressure. The actual gameplay is silent except for the shuffle of papers, the grizzled babble of the characters and the ambient wind blowing freely through the military-guarded checkpoint. The visual layout and art, which is a truly inventive take on pixel art, obscures and abstracts the people visible from your booth into dark, anonymous figures. As they approach you, their faces are rendered in enough detail that you are forced to form an attachment to them.

But then, an empathetic player wouldn’t be nearly as invested in doing a good job if they only risked their own life to help others, so the introduction of the family element is crucial. This feature impels you to really consider that five-unit bribe because maybe it would be enough after rent to buy the medicine your son needs. All of this isn’t to say the game lacks genuine harmony or humor. It is within this most stringent frame that the player glances at extremely-heartfelt expressions of human gratitude, love and altruism that provide beautiful, albeit temporary, reprieves from the otherwise intense environment of “Papers, Please.”

The game’s developer, Lucas Pope, made the game $3 for 24 hours earlier this month as part of a campaign that raised $50,000, which he equally split in donations to the National Immigration Law Center, The American Refugee Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union. Pope was in need of this kind of message and only through the gaming medium can you interact with his world in such a meaningful way.

Glory to Arstotzka.

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