Sunday, September 1, 2013

Glory to Arstotzka!

So over the past several days, I've played and enjoyed the hell out of an indie game called Papers, Please. The premise of the game is--bear with me--playing a stamp-wielding immigration officer in the communist nation of Arstotzka. Glory to Arstotzka! In sorting out in my head why I find this game fun, I've identified the two biggest reasons as puzzles and feels.

First, a bit more background: You're an immigration officer, thanks to the October 1982 labor lottery in your homeland of Arstotzka. You were placed in a Class 8 apartment when you were relocated to East Grestin to run the immigration office there. You have four other mouths to feed, and you get paid per immigrant successfully processed. There's also a Steam achievement for clawing your way up to having a Class 5 apartment; these last two things combined to be very compelling for me.

The game's a puzzle game in that you have to verify prospective immigrants' various documents before letting them into the glorious nation of Arstotzka. After all, you can't let smugglers, miscreants, ter'rists, and other unwanted for'ners in can you? You start off with just passports, but your superiors repeatedly step up the paperwork until you have to check Entry Permits, Supplemental ID cards, Access Permits (which combine those two), Work Permits or Diplomatic Passes if applicable, and Certificates of Vaccination. All of these have information, often redundant, which you have to check for errors and inconsistencies.

Did you admit this immigrant bearing a Impor passport that was supposedly issued in West Grestin (a city in Kolechia)? That warrants a citation for your poor performance. Does this immigrant weigh 85 kg on your scale, but his Supplemental ID card/Access Permit says he should be 82 kg? Better scan him. He might be a smuggler, earning you another citation if admitted. Or worse, that could be a terrorist; you don't want to get your buddy Sergiu the border guard blown up by a Kolechian extremist. Earning too many citations docks your pay; earning too many more gets you thrown in jail by the government. Glory to Arstotzka!

Here's a picture of a late-game immigrant. See if you can figure out what's wrong with these documents. I click-and-dragged all these documents from the counter in between me and the woman to my inspection table, with a shot of the stamps cluttering up the screen even further (beneath the Access Permit and out of view currently is today's memo, turned to the page with mugshots of wanted criminals. Don't let those guys through either).

The answer is: her Access Permit says she's 160 cm tall, but she's clearly ~1.8 m tall. That's grounds for a big red DENIED stamp. I like to ask about things like this first though. So I hit my recorder and "interrogate".

She says something about maybe her shoes being different? Not acceptable. Fingerprint time.

Uh oh. Those prints don't match with our records. Clearly these passports are falsified--I better call the guards. They escort her away for processing, and Calensk the other border-guard slips me a little cash for creating more work and thus more pay for him. Also, I'm on a bit of a power trip. Glory to Arstotzka!

The other thing about Papers, Please is that it involves many feels. You're always faced with morally ambiguous choices. Do you listen to these sob stories and let people through at the possible expense of your wife/son/uncle/mother-in-law's health? You might be having a bad day and have three citations already. For example:

Spoiler alert: her Entry Permit is expired. Do you give her the green-means-go stamp anyway? This is just scratching the surface too. In the campaign of this game, these little pixelated immigrants constantly pitted my conscience against my gamer's need to have a perfect playthrough. Family, vengeance, desperateness, freedom, helplessness--all these feelings were evoked either in me getting a little too into character or by the NPCs I was interacting with. Somehow this game did that to me; not super strongly, mind you, as I was definitely gaming and gunning for achievements, ect., but even still.

Sometimes people are jerks too. I'm just trying to do my job/play this game successfully. No, lady, your press pass is not the same as a passport. No, I don't care about what damn story you run about this in the United Federation media. You're holding up the line. Next!

Additionally, the game has great flavor and more than a tinge of humor. Being set in a communist country opens up punchlines, with the labor lottery at the start of the game as an example. The sometimes-broken English of some characters amused me. The best comic relief and my favorite character, however, was Jorgi Costava, the plucky and persistent smuggler from Obristan. He's not really good at getting into checkpoints though. Here's the first thing he tried to slip by my watchful eye, immaculately drawn in crayon:

"This is crude mock-up of passport. Cobrastan is not real country." says the unnamed protagonist. "But is pre-approved!" says Jorgi. Come back again tomorrow, Jorgi.

Oh man, that was a great game. Holler at me if you've played it or are thinking about trying it. Snag it for $10 on Steam if you're interested. Thanks for reading!


  1. Haha, that's really one of the strangest games I've heard about, and it looks pretty old school too. I can imagine how it's fun, though. :D

    1. Looking old-school = cheap. Very important for an indie game developer, I imagine.

      Another game with a similar sounding concept and style is Cart Life. I haven't touched that one, but from afar it looks less puzzle-heavy.

  2. You've sold me! I'm going to snap this up as soon as I see it on a Steam sale.