By Tom Hooper aka Atomp
Papers, Please is somewhat unique and not long ago the free beta that I’m previewing here got a great deal of attention from the youtube gaming community, as such I figured it would be good to go back and look at it in preparation for the final release predicted sometime this summer. The game is based around what could be described as time-sensitive detective work within a wider resource management meta-game and a pervasive moral tension.
The basis of the game is that the player takes the role of an immigration officer for the fictional communist state of Arstotzka, whereupon the player must apply the various and changing immigration rules to interrogating documents and persons attempting to gain entry. This doesn’t sound particularly thrilling, however a time limit per day introduces urgency to this work and the meta-game of supporting your family by paying for rent, food and medicine give an incentive not to fail. Pay is given according to the number of people admitted to the country, however citations and penalties can be incurred by making mistakes and admitting those with invalid documentation. The balancing of those two elements is part of the challenge of the game and also I believe part of the underlying message. The beta currently contains the story mode which has a series of events occur which will alter the state of the game and the rules for immigration, these are generally heralded by the morning paper that appears prior to the work day and can also bring other little surprises to the day.
The underlying message of the game are where I think the most can be taken from, the message about the pain and suffering of the individual within a faceless bureaucratic system is portrayed upon both the protagonist and the poor fools attempting to enter Arstotzka. Sid Meier’s description of a game as being; “a series of interesting choices” can be applied aptly to Papers, Please whereupon the player is forced into situations of risk versus reward and the needs of your immediate family versus strangers in need. These decisions combine within the context of the over-arching, indifferent yet essentially cruel bureaucracy to create a situation where assessing applicants can often become more than just a task of checking dates and details but also a moral decision.
For example say a man with all the correct paperwork and documents appears at the booth, you quickly scan the documents recognise their validity and grant him access, at which point the man comments that his wife is just behind him in line. The next person approaches the booth, she mostly has the paperwork but is missing a key document whilst mentioning her husband who has just gone before. To let her through would be inviting a citation and possibly a fine, however to deny her access would be to tear apart the couple across borders. There’s always the reality that you will most likely never hear from these people again, that they could be scamming you and that the fine could impact the health of your family, so what decision do you make? Questions like these are the essence of what makes Papers, Please a compelling experience and why the underlying message is so important. It’s impressive that Papers, Please with the gameplay and appearance that it has raises more questions over humanity and morality, and draws the player into those questions better than almost every AAA title currently in existence.
The aesthetic of the game is certainly a part of the appeal; a low resolution DOS-esque appearance is combined with a bold communist-propaganda style and an overall dark and tan colour pallet. This grim appearance fits the subject matter and setting, perfectly integrating even the GUI into the game seamlessly. The game even uses this low resolution, low colour appearance to its advantage as pictures can seem hard to distinguish, adding to the challenge. Overall the entire user experience is good or if not good (by standard UX design) then it is appropriate, the process of moving through paperwork to find evidence cannot be made too easy or quick as it would ruin the balance of the game. The sound and music in the game is certainly note-worthy. The music follows a very communist style and is very distinct as such although within the gameplay the music is almost non-existent, probably to cement the feeling of drab tension. The sound within the game follows the UX cues from the aesthetic being appropriately grim and retro, continuing the sensation of playing a much older game.
The beta is currently available for Windows and Mac from Pope’s website for the brilliant price of free. The final release of the game is predicted to cost $10 (approx £6.40), will be available on Steam thanks to a successful Greenlight campaign and will have initial support for Windows and Mac with Linux support appearing a short time after (which seems plausible as the engine it uses provides Linux compatibility). This is all very promising and from what I have gathered from the beta the final release will easily be worth ten bucks when it lands sometime during the summer. The system requirements aren’t be too bad as the underlying engine appears fairly robust and the entire game is intentionally low resolution and 2D, so it should run on almost anything (bar weird and very specific hardware compatibility issues). It must also be considered that this is still the beta release and not final code, beta is beta.