Papers, Please

Lucas Pope’s bureaucracy simulator is also a lean character piece. Players learn little about the border inspector they play as, or the fictional dictatorship he serves, but what’s there implies much. Arstotzka is vaguely communist–there’s a labor lottery, a red eagle symbol, and distinctly Eastern Euro imagery–but more importantly it’s xenophobic. The regime rapidly overhauls and expands its immigration and border control policies in the face of crises both real and imagined, piling on the number of documents and rules the Inspector must keep track of every day within a strict time limit. People reduced to numbers being shifted, victims of political dick-wagging (if not outright malice).

In this regard, the Inspector’s no different: his primary goal is his family’s survival, their everyday expenses managed in the results sections between the soul-crushing tedium. Occasionally he’s confronted with a sob story pitting decency against duty, such as when a husband and wife try to immigrate–he has the correct permits, she doesn’t. Admitting her can result in citation for breaking protocol and perhaps docked pay–difficult enough to avoid without actively courting trouble. Even the rebel group seeking to “free” Arstotzka has to bribe and threaten the Inspector into helping them. Everyone’s operating on an assessment of risk/reward, often exposing hypocrisy and arbitrariness in deciding who “deserves” to be in a country and who doesn’t.

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