WARNING: Here be spoilers. I will try to keep them at an absolute minimum, but tread lightly.
Let me start off by saying this: I’ve spent the last few days playing Gran Turismo 6, also known as “the most true-to-life driving simulator ever to be released, period”, Europa Universalis, a game where you can micromanage any aspect of a country of your choice with consequences that actually make historical and geopolitical sense, several Calls of Duty, with all of their faithfully rendered guns, and then there’s this little game. Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope. And I can say with utmost confidence – Papers, Please is by far the most realistic game I’ve played in the past week. Possibly ever.
I have to admit I have a bit of a bias against indie games – a lot of the time they tend to be hipstery, 3deep5me, irradiating the essence of “Look at me, I’m so progressive *pats self on back*”. Most others tend to be buggy to the point of unplayability, which I completely understand given the budget constraints, but I don’t play games out of pity. And then there are gems like Christine Love’s entire opus (be on the lookout for a post about that!) and this game.
I was born in Yugoslavia, back when the civil war was not quite over, the hyperinflation raged and the borders were closed. In the circumstances of a UN economic embargo, the country being ruled by a self-obsessed dictator with a giant propaganda machine behind him, and just generally being caught between a rock and a hard place, as I grew up, I got a unique opportunity to meet a whole bunch of different people. The friendly neighborhood criminal, who smuggled gasoline and tobacco across the border to feed his family (and often others’ families too), the quiet resistance fighter, biding her time and waiting for the right moment to strike, the nosy cop, watching your every move… I won’t go into details so as not to spoil the experience, but let’s just say all of these characters are present in the game too.
So as I slowly immersed myself into the role of an Eastern Bloc TSA guy, I came to understand some things I’ve never really given much thought before. For one, the irony of the world that we live in is that the only time we are truly free of prejudice towards our fellow humans is when we don’t regard them as such. When you get inside that booth, a couple hundred faces later, someone’s weight, sex, race, age… are just letters and numbers in their passport. You care just enough to make sure that they match the description. This is also where the game tries (and often succeeds) to make the player uncomfortable, introducing some very subtle social commentary through people whose looks aren’t representative of their biological sex, or their gender, putting the player in a position of taking their word for it, or electing to search, and possibly detain them.
Secondly, I can confirm that it’s not until you’re in a war-torn country ruled by Mr Cult of Personality himself that you truly develop a sense of national identity, which is not always a healthy one. All the bald eagles, “America, fuck yeah!”‘s and #Murica’s of this world don’t match the feeling when you see a Kolechian passport on your counter, and your practiced movements immediately involuntarily stop, your head jerks up and you look at this likely innocent individual with suspicion, even contempt.
On the flip side, it doesn’t take long to realize that all of those people, be they Kolechian, Obristani, Republian or your compatriots are connected to you much more deeply than you can comprehend while sitting in that booth, stamping passports. You can’t escape the feeling that every new person you let into Arstotzka is your competition for that precious slice of bread on the table, someone you can lose your job to if the authorities see them more fit. And yet, you realize that those people, whether they are men or women, green, blue, red or yellow, are your only safety net, your only lifeline in a country whose only interest is independence and that vague notion of “strength” and “unity” at the expense of progress. This ties in nicely with the lack of discrimination mentioned before – you don’t treat everyone equally because of your job, you do so because you cannot afford to do otherwise.
And then there are the endings. Yes, there are several, and they, more than anything, make you truly BECOME the main character. Are you going to be a perfectionist and strive for a perfect record without a single citation? Are you going to put your own family ahead of others or do you think you can afford to be a good Samaritan? Are you going to try to topple the regime, or are you going to pick the evil you know over the one you don’t, even if it might not be the lesser of the two? Are you going to try to run away from it all? Can you trust your friends? Can you trust your higher-ups? These are all very real issues that people across the world are facing as we speak, and now Lucas Pope has delivered a real exercise in empathy, a welcome distraction from all the #FirstWorldProblems we’re all facing here.
All in all, I give this game my heartiest recommendation and urge you to finish it. Good luck, inspectors. Glory to Arstotzka.