It doesn't feel good to play Papers, Please. It, honestly, makes me a little sick. And that is absolutely fascinating.
I'll admit I'm a little late to the game on Papers, Please—the "Dystopian Document Thriller" for Mac and PC created by Lucas Pope. But it's a game set in a (fictional) communist country in 1982, and you play a border inspector whose job it is to check paperwork and stamp passports. A paperwork game—who could resist?
It is, of course, much more than that. Your job is also to deny bribes, to strip-search frail old people, to break up families, to send people to their death, to shoot terrorists, and to ignore, if you can, the subversive spy network that's trying to use you to overthrow your own government. Your large family depends on you to keep them warm, safe, and fed on a salary that will never be enough. And that's just the beginning. Because if you choose not to ignore those bribes, pleas, and mysterious hooded figures...
Papers, Please forces the player to make moral decisions and deal with them. It puts you inside the head of a pawn of an oppressive regime, where even loyalty is repaid with suspicion. And even if you have enough money when you get home, or even if you could find some way to escape with your entire family, someone is going to die along the way, someone is going to be betrayed, and it is heartbreaking and weird and so very, very real.
Papers, Please is a great illustration of the merits of videogames as a way to tell a story—it's the promise of the interactive medium paying off and telling a very real, emotional, and serious story. Whereas some very good videogames ultimately feel like a way to pass the time (I'm not going to say that I haven't been playing Animal Crossing nearly nonstop for weeks) and others feel like just very slow, Quicktime-Event-Based-Movies, Papers, Please is a game that tells a story in a way that really couldn't be done any other way. It's absolutely not the only game that does this—see Gone Home, the riot-grrrl-story-exploration-game, and may more from through the years (please leave angry comments below with your favorites)—but it's a great one. You could watch a slow, depressing German film about a sad border inspector and his sad family, but you wouldn't be sitting there in the booth with him, looking a poor woman in the face and deciding whether you should reject her passport and send her to her death—or approve her visa and have your pay docked such that your dying son can't get his much-needed medicine.
In Papers, Please, your own skills, your own choices of who to trust, and your own mistakes shape the story. It's depressing as heck, but it's also an immensely satisfying experience.
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