Immersion in Papers, Please

Ah, the cold white of winter. A season for staying indoors with a warm drink and cozy story. The time of year when a young gamer’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of…

…fictional Communist regimes*.

*If you think this post’s gonna get political, you’re on the wrong blog, son.

Papers, Please takes place in GLORIOUS Arstotska, which has just reopened its borders to residents, immigrants, workers, and refugees – provided they bring the proper documentation. You play the role of a checkpoint officer and must sift through the barrage of mandated paperwork as person after person files through your line.

You encounter everyone from the kind to the quirky to the downright rude and nasty. At the end of each day, you receive a meager paycheck and head home to a crowded apartment where you must decide whether your family can afford its heat or food…or not.

Now, there are plenty of books which pull off excellent realism and immersion through word choice and atmosphere. But I’d like to take a moment to make a considerably geeky argument: Some stories are just better told through video games. There’s a degree of involvement, high-intensity, and personal risk that makes stories shine in a virtual setting.

Papers, Please is an excellent example of what a game can do in this venue. I don’t pretend to understand socialist life perfectly after playing it, but I will say it did more to engage me than any other similarly-themed story has done. And the way I think it succeeds in this, is because the game mechanics demand personal control.

The first-person viewpoint of the game does two things: 1) It offers upfront interaction with a society under oppression; 2) It drives the protagonist’s personal struggles powerfully home.

For the first point, I think most poignantly of the moment when Arstotska’s government requires all “suspicious” persons to undergo a scanning process, which strips them nude (or down to their underwear if you choose to censor the game for modesty). While it may be a government mandate that requires the strip-search, you are personally responsible for forcing them through this demeaning procedure. You must swallow the guilt when an innocent person is robbed of their privacy.

…And sometimes the not-so-innocent. I smell contraband!

The second point is the bread and butter of the game, though. From the start you’re expected to complete transactions flawlessly, but at the same time you’re only paid per properly-handled immigrant. When you work accurately but slowly, you bring home pittance to your family and have nothing left after paying the rent. The stress of your work load then mounts that much more – PARTICULARLY when the checkpoint begins to require MORE documentation to double-check.

And as your weeks on the job progress, you become so buried in vetting papers you don’t even catch acts of terrorism happening right outside your booth.

This is the ability of a video game’s story. Through actions completed in gameplay you become so bound to the life of your lead character that you can feel what he must be feeling. The anxiety of earning a piddling paycheck. The mix of tedium and stress working with the unpredictable public. The shock of encountering violence on a regular basis.

Believe me, I’m a lover and proponent of books, but there’s rarely been a piece of literature that’s given me this deep of an experience. It’s a different realm of storytelling altogether and in some ways can’t be compared to other mediums. (I know this blog is all about learning writing skills from video games, but shh.)

So hey, while you stay in from the cold, feel free to pick up a controller as well as a book. Winter’s a great time for enjoying all manner of stories, right? *pours a cup of tea and calls in another immigrant*


Papers, Please is the property of Lucas Pope. You can purchase it to play via Steam.

4 thoughts on “Immersion in Papers, Please

  1. Since the first time you told me about this game I’ve wanted to play it (a rarity for me). Or maybe watch you play it… Sounds super stressful!

    1. I totally forgot I’d told you about Papers, Please! It can be stressful, but thankfully there’s an “easy” mode that gives you some extra money at the end of each day. (I confess: I haven’t beaten it off easy mode yet…)

      I’d gladly show it to you some time. There IS a content warning, though. That’s probably obvious, I suppose. 🙂

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