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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Aggie Arcade

A Day in the Life of an Immigration Inspector

The term immersion, as it applies to video games, often brings with it connotations of expansive landscapes, beautiful environmental vistas and compelling narrative developments. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim acts as a key example, in which the game’s greatest strength is the world itself and how players feel a strong connection to it.

Over the weekend, I was reminded that the successful execution of a unique idea can establish the same level of immersion, in spite of a limited scope and modest production values. This cognitive shift came as a result of my time with a recent indie game titled Papers, Please.

Described by creator Lucas Pope as a “dystopian document thriller,” Papers, Please transports players into the role of immigration inspector for the fictional country Arstotzka. I’ve played hundreds of video games in my lifetime, and never before have I had to admit or deny people entry into a country.

Oddly enough, I had a lot of fun completing the menial tasks that came with my new occupation. I verified documents, highlighted discrepancies, interrogated individuals and ultimately marked their passports with the appropriate stamps. I admit it sounds boring on paper, but there’s just something about noticing false names or missing worker permits that gives me great satisfaction. I did my new job well and deserved a pat on the back.

By the time the third or fourth day in the game came around, I really got into that immigration inspector mindset. This was important, since individuals started pleading for entry into the country despite invalid papers. One woman claimed to be visiting her sick son, but she had an expired entry permit and I had to turn her away.

Do I really have no sympathy for this poor woman? What’s the big deal if I let one person through? These thoughts briefly ran through my head, and I wondered if I felt some kind of repressed, Freudian pleasure from ruining people’s lives. But then I remembered my own responsibilities — doing my job correctly meant more money at the end of each day, which went toward heating, food and rent for my family. It’s an ingenious way of creating player incentive in the face of such tough moral dilemmas.

These simple mechanics help reinforce the immersion in Papers, Please and speak to the game’s ability to take a seemingly off-putting role (immigration inspector), and make it compelling, interesting and fun. I didn’t need fancy visuals or a huge open world in order to feel truly connected to the experience.

Papers, Please is currently available as a free beta on Pope’s website, but the designer hopes to finish the game in the next month or two with much more content. I can’t wait to get back in there and continue my job as immigration inspector for the glorious nation of Arstotzka.

ANTHONY LABELLA can be reached at arts@theaggie.org.

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