Some thoughts on... Papers, Please

Today, some thoughts on Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013).

The frontier as the limit of the human condition
In recent weeks, we have sadly witnessed an endless amount of news, images and discourses on the Syrian refugee crisis. In fact, we all know it is not a new phenomenon. It is the new version of a story told for the thousandth time, which narrates the tale of those human beings who seek something very simple but, apparently, very difficult to achieve: a better life (or a life without a further ado, since it is often a matter of life or death). They escape from wars, famine, misery, all kinds of persecutions. It does not matter if what expects them on the other side of the multiple frontiers they have to cross, as if they were participating in a cruel obstacle race, is nothing particularly good; they are even ready to risk their lives in the process. Simply, they have no choice. Border after border, these people only yearn for one thing: reach their destination.

The frontier - that liminal space - is a place between two places; it's an universe with its own rules and meanings, which are different from those we find on both sides of the border. The frontier is a transit area but it is also a detention zone, where the authorities decide who enters and who stays out. It is in that paranormal borderline sphere where Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) takes place. We put ourselves in a Cerberus subaltern's shoes, precisely, to deal with other subalterns: the people piled up on the other side of the border who want to enter our territory, the glorious Arstotzka.

It is widely accepted that Lucas Pope's work recreates a frontier that reminds us of a former soviet republic. Definitely, it is almost impossible not to notice that the game exudes all those things that we would associate to what happened on the East side of the Iron Curtain: from the fictitious names of the countries to the dull aesthetic that impregnates its whole design, typical of the soviet bloc. However, the more time I spent as an Arstotzka's frontier inspector, the more it reminded me of the present. Passports, id cards, work passes, forms, entry visas, frisks, augmented security measures due to terrorist threats, full body scans, inquisitorial interrogations... Is all of this typical of extinct soviet republics or is this closer to how the frontiers of 'advanced' Western democracies work?

You have to make a tremendous effort in order to survive and provide for you family because everything depends, to a great extent, on how efficient you are in managing that crossing point we call the frontier. That means we are force to leave several human beings behind, maybe abandon them to a terrible fate. Fortunately, Papers, Please gives the player some leeway to, from time to time, make decisions that are against the rules and regulations. You can poke holes in the system, giving opportunities to those who had none. You might be creating a greater evil or damaging your own interests, but at least you are able to negotiate in the limits of that limit that is the frontier.

In any case, Papers, Please does not evoke a more or less distant past, but a very close situation, the present. So close that it hurts.


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