In my gaming experience (now stretching, ugh, 24 years), I've portrayed: floating talking skulls, item shop merchants, sentient meat, a fake hacker, God, Satan, a Japanese death pinball, and a shrunken planet with a ray gun. It's STILL weird to be playing (and enjoying) a game about being an immigration checkpoint attendant.
Papers, Please, by Lucas Pope, is still in beta, but it's already compellingly playable. Set in the same post-Soviet dystopia as Pope's previous game, The Republia Times (in which your role was editor-in-chief of the state-controlled newspaper, ordered, at gun point, to keep the people happy and docile through story selection), Papers, Please is, mechanically, very simple. Potential immigrants step up to your window, give you their documents, and wait as you peruse them for forgeries or mistakes. If you don't find any, you take your giant stamper machine and CLUNK "Approved" on their passports. If they do, you reject them (or interrogate them to figure out the meaning behind the discrepancies). The heart of the gameplay is a series of very basic rules that you apply to every set of documents - are the dates right? The issuing country? Do they have the right visa? It's essentially a game of pattern recognition and anal-retentive detail-noticing, and with the wrong implementation, it could be incredibly dry. But somehow, here, it isn't.
A huge part of that is the interface. Almost everything is done in-game, with no need for menus. Your desk is your interface - you shuffle the documents around on it, pull out your stamping machine, fumble through your instruction manual. If you need an added feature (say, to search or fingerprint a subject), a button pops out on the desk. Besides a few opening instructions, almost everything exists in-game, and it gives your job a pleasantly tactile feel.
Adding to that feeling is the solid CLUNK of the stamping machine. It's hard to overstate how good it feels to CLUNK a document with a big, satisfying stamp. It gives a happy little climax to every encounter - CLUNK! Denied! Go away, forger! CLUNK! Welcome to glorious free state of Arstotzka, citizen! I don't know where Pope got that sound file, but it's the game's true star. CLUNK! I am seriously considering pausing writing this to play the game some more, just so I can get my CLUNK! fix.
|This lady SEEMS on the level...
That's the genius of Pope's game - it presents situations where empathy is called for, and then makes that empathy harmful, or at least inconvenient, for the player. For every second you spend asking someone for an extra document, or double-checking their fingerprints, you could just CLUNK! them and send them away, with you, at least, none the worse for wear. The game has scripted characters who offer more tangible moral choices, but the game's most effective moral lesson is that it's remarkably easy (and, in fact, kind of quietly pleasant), to turn off your humanity in favor of efficiency. (Or even patriotism! There's something about the game's bombastic, tuba-y soundtrack that gives me a certain pride in protecting my fair Arstotzka from these filthy, dangerous immigrants!)
|But I don't like her face. Clunk!
|CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK CLUNK