Games of the Decade: Papers, Please's immigration takedown is more powerful now than ever


Lucas Pope’s dystopian document thriller Papers, Please is, on the face of it, a puzzle game about catching people out, but I think it’s actually a game about coping with being punched in the gut, over and over again, with the relentlessly regular beat of a bass saxhorn playing a slow march rhythm.

Bowm! Bowm! Bowm! Bowm!

Amid the stress of trying to catch travellers out as an immigration officer working at the border crossing between fictional Eastern Bloc-style countries Kolechia and Arstotzka (glory to Arstotzka), Papers, Please forces you to decide the fate of not only strangers, but your loved ones. It is impossible to earn enough money to feed, heat and nurse your entire family. So you must decide who should live and who should die in your house. My wife is cold, sick and hungry. My son is cold and very sick. My mother-in-law and uncle are already dead. My son will die without medicine. If I spend the $5 I have spare after paying rent on medicine for him, my wife will probably get very sick and die. Both will get very cold because I can’t afford to pay for heating.

Your entire family is gone. Workers are expected to support large healthy families. Your position will be filled by someone more appropriate.

Bowm! Bowm! Bowm! Bowm!

It’s pretty bleak, isn’t it? You’ll probably end up arrested. You might end up put to death. But even as Papers, Please gets more stressful it gets harder to put down. You think, if I just keep my head down, do a good job and speak only when spoken to, everything will be fine. But the world around you is going to hell and it’s dragging you down with it. A mysterious stranger slips you a black card with a strange symbol on it. This is a truly terrifying moment – more terrifying I think than any horror video game jump scare – because you know in that moment you’re being dragged into something that’ll probably get you in quite a lot of trouble with the Ministry of Labor – if they ever find out about it. Papers, Please is about muscle memory, repetition and monotony, but surprises are around every corner.

Bowm! Bowm! Bowm! Bowm!

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But what makes Papers, Please one of the standout indie games of the decade is it has so much to say, and it says it so ruthlessly. And what it has to say about immigration is more powerful now as the decade comes to an end than it was back in 2013. The victims of the oppressive Arstotzka regime are all around you. They are the desperate you turn away, the resistance who try to recruit you, the soldiers who man the border crossing. You are a victim yourself. You must hide pictures of your family from your bosses. You must toe the party line. As you navigate through the moral maze of border inspection, tension between Kolechia and Arstotzka (Glory to Arstotzka) grows. There is a wall between both countries, and you must decide whether to protect it or knock it down. Papers, Please is set in the early eighties, but it could be set in the present and it would make just as much sense.

Bowm! Bowm! Bowm! Bowm!

Papers, Please has 20 different endings and number 20 is my favourite. An information audit shows you’ve ignored all resistance requests and worked dutifully, and you are permitted to return to work. Arstotzka (Glory to Arstotzka) reaches a deal with Kolechia and the checkpoint reopens on 1st January. You are locked into your job forever, it seems. The struggle goes on, your meagre wage spread too thin across the lives of what family that remains. What’s brilliant about this ending is it is the only one that unlocks the code for endless mode. It is also the only one that unlocks the Glory to Arstotzka achievement.

It is the “good” ending.

Bowm! Bowm! Bowm! Bowm!



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