At its heart, play is participating in an imagined reality. The key word is participating—this is what separates play from reading a book or watching a film. The player participates in the play of a game, while the reader or voyeur passively watches. However what I’m talking about is distinct in some degree from any narrative a game may try to spin—in truth, this is the reason games can achieve a powerful effect while remaining narratively minimal.
Papers Please by Lucas Pope is a perfect example of this approach. The game takes place in an imaginary totalitarian state, with the player taking the role of a newly appointed immigration officer. Beyond that are a few narrative branches and ornaments, but much of the story progression is driven for gameplay design. Besides the newspaper headlines suggesting the new level’s developments, content resembling a story is a reward for playing the game.
So what does the gameplay consist of?
Checking immigration papers and stamping passports, doing the bureaucratic legwork of checking papers and denying entry to anybody who doesn’t check out. After a series of terrorist attacks, duties expand to scanning immigrants for contraband and detaining suspicious individuals… All from the desk of your kiosk at the border.
Players are punished by the game for working slowly or imprecisely because they are paid for each person they correctly process in a day. Their pay is docked for granting immigration to people whose papers don’t check out, and as the head of a household in a poor totalitarian state like fictional Arstotzka? It means you have to work as fast as you can to make ends meet.
One can easily joke that Papers Please is a bureaucrat simulator or an immigrations officer simulator, and in part they’re right. However it ignores the harsh conditions the player must experience and endure to win, or at least complete the game. Nor does it consider the general art style of the game.
Personally, I think playing Papers Please gives players a good idea of what it must have felt like to drive from West Germany to West Berlin before the Iron Curtain fell, for both the people travelling and the border agents. If you were making the drive, there was a period where the car was in East Germany. This period was highly monitored—you drove a particular vehicle (provided by the DDR) with proscribed directions. These included not just the route, but also how fast you drove each portion. They even timed out the whole trip with a number of checkpoints. When you arrived at the West Berlin border, they’d make a point of checking the odometer (knowing the correct reading). If you didn’t check out, you’d get detained.
The game asks your frantic eyes to flit across papers, sometimes filed in triplicate. Any inconsistencies? Does their story check out? Next. Next. Next. And by the end of the day when it’s all tallied up? You’re either wishing you hadn’t spent so much time double checking, or you’re wishing you had. So this time there’s not enough money for food.
If we strip the game to its basic mechanics, it’s a round based game of match as many as you can for points to advance to more complex levels. Each level has a steep point cost to advance, but players can pay below that cost for a short time. That’s all there is to this game, its play mechanics and punishing difficulty are what generate the play feeling that drive its visual and narrative themes. A stressful matching game dresses up in symbols that recall Soviet Russia and 1984 to resemble a kind of experience someone might have had—an imagined possibility.