Dystopian border control simulator Papers, Please turns 10 years old this week, and developer Lucas Pope has marked the occasion by demaking it. Created in collaboration with Keiko Pope, the resulting browser-based LCD, Please "runs" on a mocked-up LCD console, akin to Nintendo's Game & Watch. Pope is also celebrating the anniversary by donating $100,000 to the International Rescue Committee.
The demake gives you the simplified strokes of the celebrated 2013 game: you're a border control officer, approving or denying entry to the fictional country of Arstotzka, which boils down to checking mugshots and bios against faces that, in this rendition, call to mind Rorschach blots. The representation of an LCD screen with "baked-in" graphics is impressive - I had to fight the urge to tilt my computer to catch the sunlight while playing.
Much has been written about Papers, Please and the line it treads between efficiency and empathy, together with the fine detail of its satire of the immigration process and Soviet bureaucracy. John Walker (RPS in peace) summarised it as follows in his original review. "Its lofi graphics and static setting join its focus on mundanity and repetition under pressure to suggest something that sounds about as far away from 'game' as you might imagine." But he added that it's "an engrossing, creeping affair, almost rogue-like in its grip on you to last longer, work faster, abandon principles more freely".
Graham called the way it balances obeying your government's directives and processing candidates quickly with showing kindness to the people you screen "an ethically interesting quandary", but noted that "you'll get the point pretty quickly". Playing the game in 2015, he found that "what makes me return to Papers, Please - and what makes me glad there's an endless mode - is the simple pleasure of handling documents, scanning rules, and pressing chunky interface buttons when I've made my mind up."
I think that recasting Papers, Please as an LCD game brings those "simple pleasures" to the fore, inasmuch as I used to play on LCD handhelds as a child, and the demake strips out a lot of the sobering narrative context. The stately way each piece of documentation beeps into view makes me giggle. But the LCD faceblot effect also lends the game an eerie new dimension which makes me thankful that it doesn't (as far as I can tell) include the original's option to strip-search migrants. And perhaps the experience is all the grimmer for being presented in such a twee, condensed fashion: I'm trying to imagine how I would feel about it if the demake had been released first.
I have similarly mixed feelings about the anniversary promotion at large, which converts the original game's visual and narrative choices into the language of a press release. It takes the form of a propaganda doc from the Arstotzkan "Ministry of Scheduled Celebration", hailing the "five million inspectors" who have played since launch. There are Papers, Please-themed shirts, posters and stickers from the Ministry of Fabric, and a temporary discount on the original Papers, Please from the Ministry of Discounts & Flash Sales. The mock-handheld LCD demake is described as an "inspector training tool". A question for the comments thread: is all this a satire of video game promotion, or has the promotional element engulfed the satire?