Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Papers, Please (Preview) (PC/Mac)

I've always had a patchy relationship with immigration and customs officers. I'm the genius who, on having triggered the metal detector three times at an airport in Norway, decided to reach inside his jacket looking for all the world like he was going to whip out a shooter (or a travel wallet with a big metal zip, now thankfully lost). I'm the smart guy who had a passport photo taken with shoulder length hair then got a load of it cut off just before a barely successful attempt to enter Japan. I'm honestly surprised I've never been strip searched for my general failure at being a competent world traveller.

Papers, Please is an indie game still in its rickety alpha stage which sees the player take on the role of an immigration officer in a dystopian Eastern Bloc country in the grim, grey 1980s. With travel restrictions having just been lifted (stop yawning at the back, this game is pretty fun. Don't make me call the Secret Police on you) vigilance is required to make sure only the right people get in.

As a concept it's pretty simple. You click on the loudhailer above the little customs booth to issue a Soup Nazi-esque "NEXT!" and when the person at the front of the customs queue appears at the booth you inspect their papers, through dragging and dropping them into a viewing window. Passport details have to match up with visa details, official seals must be present and work permits need to be inspected. There's a couple of big satsifying stamps for approving and denying entry. It's a work simulator, yes, but it's a pretty cool experience. And I guess it would be a major break from the norm if your day job was fire-fighting or something equally awesome.

On each day you face a parade of mostly miserable faces and, while this game is still in development, it seems clear that one of the goals is to get as many of them either through the gates into your little state or sent back from whence they came before the shift ends. The queue of people despondently dissolves at the end of the day as the aspiring immigrants, returning citizens, travelling workers and folks just hoping to pass through knock off and lay plans to return tomorrow.

The first time I denied someone access to the Republic of Arstotzka I felt a bit good about it. I'm not denying it. After a few more red stamps I started to feel a bit shit for these people who I don't even know and don't even exist. I believe that in the final build of the game you'll be able to have people arrested as well as turning them away, and that might make me feel really shit for them. Or then again they might be proper full on evil-doers. Ahh, conflicting emotions, there you are.

The graphics tick a lot of Amiga nostalgia boxes, and fit really well with the subject matter. The music is choppy; it only lasts a few seconds in the title sequence and is intermittent in the points breakdown screen between workdays. Yes, that's right - there's a scoring system! It appears that eventually there's going to be a mechanic for keeping your family happy, or indeed alive. Status indicators for your wife, son, mother in law and uncle are present in the screen that breaks down the day's wages.

The alpha build I played resets to day one after five days of work. Imagine if all jobs were like this! An eternity of probation periods and having to meet co-workers again and again. Twilight Zone, man. Heavy.

With Papers, Please as it stands so far Lucas Pope has laid out an interesting set of foundations for a game that could define, and by define I mean create, the "document thriller" genre. I'll be awaiting the finished article with bated breath and a freshly taken passport photo. No smiling, no hair in front of the face, no glasses, no additional persons in the picture with you, et cetera.

Download the alpha build of the game here (from Lucas Pope's website).
3 out of 5