February 5, 2013 2:30 PM | John Polson
Lucas Pope's Papers, Please aims to take that nervous feeling of waiting to pass through immigration checkpoints and flip the situation, putting players in the hot seat of an inspector. They must decide between those who are safe to enter the country and those who may be terrorists, spies, or smugglers.
Papers, Please just received an update as an early but playable alpha for Windows and Mac. The basic gameplay already requires a bit of detective work, as players compare the work or visitor documents, passports, and other vital information of each person. Players highlight inconsistencies and question the visitor about them, ultimately approving or denying their entry visa.
The exploration of such a curious theme may come as no surprise to those who follow Lucas' earlier work such as The Republica Times or his games at Ratloop (Helsing's Fire and Mightier). But working independently on creative ideas like these seems to be where Lucas thrives, having left the world of AAA (Naughty Dog) after working on Uncharted 1 and 2.
"Immigration checkpoints are always tense, and I thought the whole thing might make a good game premise. Following from that, there's no more tense a checkpoint than a dystopian one (think East/West Berlin at the height of the cold war)," he explains.
"Then, Bourne is always slipping through checkpoints and wouldn't it be cool to catch the bastard. And finally, I feel bad for immigration inspectors. They have a tough job and their primary interaction is with people that consider them adversaries. I guess anybody in a security position gets this but I thought a game where you played as an inspector could give some useful perspective."
I asked if the time and setting held particular meaning for him. "Nothing particular about that precise date. It's set during a fictional cold war with limited technology. There was originally a telex computer in it that worked like early 80's tech but that's gone now. I could probably move it to 2082 for some extra irony."
He says that gameplay-wise Papers Please is a mix of his two previous games: Six Degrees of Sabotage and The Republia Times (pictured above). "Those were both 48-hour Ludum Dare games and I liked enough pieces from each that I figured a longer game with similar elements could be fun."
Speaking of his earlier work, I asked why some of those games seem to involve recurring gameplay elements such as reviewing and comparing information. "I'm not sure actually. I prefer making avatar-less games where your role is more first-person and you don't see your character. That leaves FPS games and stuff like this I guess. I also like building up a story with ancillary information and that works well when you've got a lot of little bits of information floating around."
In his latest game, Papers, Please puts the player in a unique role of immigration inspector. Lucas said that while his motivations may suggest that he wants players to empathize with these workers, gameplay is more important than any message for him. "If it's not fun then there's really no point in tacking a message onto it. And even then, the message works best when kept on-point and woven into the gameplay."