Spontaneous intrigue spices up tiresome routine
There is a bit of Oregon Trail here, maybe some Law of the West. This dystopian document thriller is occasionally thrilling, but almost always engaging. Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please has an intense focus we don’t often see anymore. It buds with simplicity and flowers into a perpetually tedious mess.
Set in a parallel 1980s, its fictional world brings to mind the Berlin Wall, the Cold War and the Soviet Union. You are an inspector running a checkpoint between the two formerly war torn nations of Arstotzka and Kolechia. You will meet diplomats, refugees, reporters, drug dealers, prostitutes, killers, alongside the more everyday folk. You decide who is allowed in and who is not. Terrorism, espionage, disease and the effects of war ravage the world around and within communist Arstotkza. Touching on several themes, some in timely fashion, a lot of the thematic elements aren’t stressed by the experience, abundant as they may be.
Every day starts the same, with a look at the headlines, providing an idea of what to expect for the coming workday or the consequences of a previous one. Every day ends with a choice to distribute limited savings on food, rent, heat and medicine. Like sifting through the paperwork in the in between, it’s all routine, yet at the same time, it's anything but.
Each day brings a new challenge. A terrorist attack today means, “random” searches tomorrow. There’s always one more thing to remember and another to forget. It becomes easy to fixate on the new thing and easier still to gloss over those finer details.
It’s all quite simple, checking expiration dates, glancing at a photo, checking the gender, cross referencing names, cross referencing identification numbers, examining the weight and height, all followed by a red or green stamp. With more as simple things that need checking and double checking come tomorrow, these simple tasks accumulate into one big hassle. When your pay is a commission based on how many people you get through, and you only have so much time, you’re in a constant rush to get to the next person. You have mouths to feed, you couldn’t afford heat last night, and the rent just went up. Oh, and your son is sick.
You might have to make sacrifices or get in bed with shady people to keep enough money in your savings, but you only get to make so many mistakes each day before you start getting penalized. Earlier mistakes might mean you can't risk offering more leniencies when you otherwise might have. Perhaps, in a moment of intrigue, guided by some moral compass, you might overlook a certain discrepancy in the paperwork. Perhaps your moral compass indicates no exceptions. Either way, to grant or deny entry to every single person who enters your booth is a choice you have to make. You don’t have to care about any of it, but because of your position, the encounters feel natural, making even minor characters compelling.
Some refugee might be especially rude. Do you tell them to shove it, even though their paperwork is in order? Someone might insist that the mistake on her passport is just a typo. Maybe some guy is smuggling some sort of contraband and offers you a taste in exchange for a green stamp, or maybe he’s just trying to get medicine to his kid.
What makes these kinds of decisions more significant is Papers, Please’s thorough concentration on the drudging monotony of paper pushing. That even the slightest deviation turns the apathetic shuffling of papers into an empathetic exercise of principle. It isn’t necessarily fun, but that only works in its favor.