We've all been there. You're in an airport, waiting to get in or out of a country, and you're stuck in immigration. The line is dozens of people long and when you finally reach the counter, your passport gets a quick glance, you're asked a few questions, and then you move along. It's frustrating for the traveler, but what's it like on the other side of the counter? That's what developer Lucas Pope wanted to explore with the game Papers, Please, which puts players in the role of an immigration inspector.
"The concept was inspired by frequent trips through airport immigration and the realization that inspecting documents in a game setting might be fun," he tells The Verge. "Once I started mulling over the basic concepts, I felt there was good potential for interesting mechanics and encounters."
"The concept was inspired by frequent trips through airport immigration."
Papers, Please is a dark game. It takes place in the fictional dystopia of Arstotzka, a communist state circa 1982. Citizens from war-torn neighboring countries wait in long lines to get to your counter, where you inspect their documents and determine whether they can enter the country. Things start out relatively simple, with a small rulebook and only a few documents to check out, but each day new rules are added. When immigrants start taking too many jobs, for example, you'll need to ensure that they have a proper work permit before they can enter. Eventually you'll be utilizing X-ray scanners and fingerprinting technology to make sure people are who they claim to be.
The most surprising thing about the game might just be that it's actually fun: Inspecting documents and finding inconsistencies is very satisfying. But there's more to the game than just making you feel like a detective. You're allowed to make a few mistakes each day without being penalized, and sometimes you'll need to make a decision on whether to make those mistakes on purpose. Do you let in a woman without the proper paperwork so that she can be reunited with her husband? Do you keep out a man with all the right documents because he is supposedly forcing young girls to work for him? These decisions can be difficult to make, since you never actually have all of the information. People could always be lying, and it's hard to know if they are. Every morning you read the paper, and sometimes you'll see the results of your decisions, for good or bad.
"My goal isn't to make a political statement."
Many game developers consciously tackle politically sensitive issues, whether it's rioting or gun control, but for Pope's Papers, Please it was more about making a great game — immigration just happened to be an interesting subject. He's been working on the game since November and still doesn't know if there's a message he's trying to get across with it. "Although there are political elements in the game, my goal isn't to make a political statement," he says. "I'm more interested in providing an entertaining experience for a few hours. If players walk away with a little more understanding about the difficult position that immigration inspectors, or any low-level bureaucrats really, often find themselves in, that'd be okay too. But really, I hope the game is still enjoyable even if none of that comes across."
"I'm naturally attracted to Orwellian communist bureaucracy."
The Soviet Union-esque setting was inspired in part by the Berlin Wall and the tensions between East and West Germany, and is also loosely connected to one of Pope's previous games, The Republia Times, in which players become editor-in-chief of a state-run newspaper. "I'm naturally attracted to Orwellian communist bureaucracy," says Pope. The dark pixel art certainly aids the 1980s Cold War vibe, and is detailed enough to make you actually feel some empathy for the people you'll deal with. It's not fun turning someone away who might be killed in their homeland, and when an explosion outside cuts the work day short, you don't feel happy about getting the day off.
The current version of Papers, Please can be played now for free on both Windows and Mac, but there's still plenty of work to be done. The game was recently greenlit to launch on Steam, where the full version is expected to be available sometime this summer. According to Pope, the beta that's playable now only represents about one-third of the experience story-wise, and he's also creating a separate endless mode "where you can play forever against a constant stream of randomized immigrants." The two modes should help satisfy both of the disparate types of players Papers, Please has attracted thus far. "Some people react sincerely to the moral questions raised in the game," explains Pope. "Others really, really enjoy the power trip of wielding complete control over the immigrants' entry approval."