When I first got my hands on the beta version of Papers, Please for Windows, I didn’t realize that an immigration game would suck me in so much. Would you deny someone entry for breaking the rules or would you let them in on humanitarian grounds, rules be damned? That’s the kind of decisions players make as a border agent in this game, the free beta for which is also available for Mac.
I recently had the opportunity to grab a hold of Lucas Pope, the mastermind behind Papers, Please.
PixelEnemy: I’m quite surprised by how emotional Papers, Please is. There are instances where you want to let someone in on humanitarian grounds, ignoring rules. I know the intention wasn’t to make a political statement, but the game certainly caught attention. Do you think it will attract criticism from political groups?
Lucas Pope: Honestly, I’m not sure. Even though I’m more interested in the gameplay aspects, there’s a lot of political stuff going on in the game and it’s hard to predict how it’ll be interpreted and by who. As an example, one of the common documentation errors for immigrants in the game is having the wrong gender listed. “Sex” is just another fact on the passport that can be correlated with other facts; like “Birth date”, “Expiration”, “Issuing City”, etc. Each of those needs to be correct to admit entry. What I didn’t predict is that having wrong sex listed on the passport pushes the game into commentary about gender issues. I’m guessing there’s probably a few other things like that where I’m unintentionally referencing something that’s an important issue for many people.
PE: I’ve travelled internationally quite a bit, and have found immigration desk clerks to be quite unpleasant. But Papers, Please shows the other side of the story and seems very well-researched. Did you actually speak to any border agents and/or thoroughly read up on the issues that they face?
LP: My sister was a customs agent but aside from hearing a few crazy stories, I never talked to her specifically about the game. A few people with similar jobs have told me that the mechanics in the game are close to what they do. If that’s true, it’s just me getting lucky. Once I started considering the concept, the gameplay mechanics and story grew from what I thought would make a fun game.
PE: This isn’t the first time an immigration game has been made. A game called ICED is intended to show players what life is like as an unauthorized immigrant, and then there’s a game called Border Patrol which encourages players to shoot cartoon immigrants. Papers, Please is not extreme, but touches upon a difficult subject. What kind of challenges did you face in developing a game with a sensitive theme?
LP: I think the focus on Papers, Please is more low-level than games like those. I’m trying to avoid making sweeping statements about the good or bad sides of immigration policy. Instead, the game concentrates on the lowly grunt whose job it is to enforce policy. Players see the fallout from both too-tight and too-loose security, but their main concern is the welfare of their family that depends on them directly.
PE: Do you think this game has the potential of being used in high school social studies classes?
LP: Maybe the first third of it. Things get a little non-classroomy after that.
PE: In recent years, we have seen games driven by emotions gaining popularity. There have been some successful AAA titles that have put players in a role that sometimes has them questioning their decisions. Do you think gamers are gradually moving away from your typical genres like shoot-em-ups?
LP: I don’t think so. Games are becoming more and more ubiquitous. Instead of losing genres I’d say we’re just adding more.
PE: With next-gen around the corner, do you have any plans to work on console games, iOS or Android releases?
LP: I don’t have any immediate plans for consoles or phones. The rough priority for Papers, Please is to release on PC/Mac and follow up with a Linux version. After that I’m going to look into an iPad and possible Android tablet versions.
Papers, Please has been greenlit to launch on Steam, with a full version scheduled sometime in summer 2013.