"Fun" is a weird and troublesome thing. Almost impossible to define, it's a lightweight term that lacks any real heft, yet it's come to be one of the most commonly used criteria for deciding if a game is any good. Is it interesting? Thought-provoking? Never mind all that: is it fun?
You couldn't really describe Papers, Please, a "dystopian document thriller" from indie developer Lucas Pope, as fun. It's compelling, challenging and genuinely unnerving. It's a game that leaves a scar, forcing you to confront your own capacity for evil, without the comforting framing device of role-play and morality meters. It's not a game you'll fire up for a 10-minute distraction, but it is a game you should play if you have any interest in how games can explore more than just bombastic wish fulfilment.
What we have here is the literal opposite of the usual power fantasy. You don't play as anyone special, just a downtrodden citizen of the ominous Soviet-styled nation of Arstotzka in the dying months of 1982. Assigned by a labour lottery to work for the Ministry of Admission, you spend your day stuck in a dank booth at a border checkpoint, responsible for deciding who gets to enter the country and who gets turned away - or worse.
Here's what your working day entails. You start by reading the diktat handed down by your superior, detailing any changes or restrictions to the immigration laws. Then you pull the lever that opens the grille, and use the tannoy to summon the first shuffling figure in a long snaking line of poor souls hoping to enter Arstotzka, either temporarily or permanently.
They appear in your booth as a lumpy, pixellated sack of human desperation, and dutifully hand over their papers. It's up to you to check them over for any suspicious information or discrepancies and then stamp the passport: green lets them in, red sends them packing.
Mistakes trigger a dot matrix communiqué from your superiors. Turn away a valid visitor or let in somebody with dodgy papers, and you're in trouble. The first few slip-ups are allowed to pass without sanction, but after that you're fined five Arstotzkan dollars for every blunder. You don't earn much and every deduction is a huge chunk out of your salary.
It's here that the game gets seriously bleak. After each working day, you have to balance your domestic budget, dividing your pittance between heating and food for your family, while also allowing for medicine when they get sick, gifts for birthdays and the like. Inevitably, you can't afford everything, and it's all too easy to be heading home to a dying wife and starving child, knowing you've not earned enough to save either of them.
As the days creep past, your job becomes increasingly complicated. Visitors may require an entry visa along with their passport. Those seeking work may need a permit. There's even a story that unfurls slowly as terrorist incidents raise tensions between Arstotzka and neighbouring Kolechia, forcing you to search and even detain those you suspect of being foreign dissidents.
The interface by which you navigate this bureaucratic nightmare is thankfully simple. Every document can be dragged into your workspace to be read, while an alert button allows you to click and highlight any two pieces of information you feel don't match. This can be anything from the wrong ID number on a permit to discrepancies between what a hopeful migrant says and what their papers show. Before long, the number of things you need to watch out for is so overwhelming that it's easy to botch the job by missing something obvious - like somebody not matching their passport photo.
The people who enter your booth have personality as well, with some recurring characters - such as the endearingly barmy bloke who keeps turning up with amateurish faked papers - and some genuinely disturbing side-stories. What do you do when a women pushes you a note saying she's been sold into slavery and the man who controls her is somewhere in your line? What if a husband and wife are separated by red tape - do you take a hit on your own income to allow them to stay together?
The game becomes more than a stark odd-one-out puzzler and turns into something even more interesting - a truly confrontational piece of role-play
Some people are rude, others terrified. Some plead, others bluff. It's moments like this when the game becomes more than a stark odd-one-out puzzler and turns into something even more interesting - a truly confrontational piece of role-play, where the way you shuffle your papers or the pause before you stamp a passport feel loaded with more than just ones and zeroes.
At times it feels like a digital version of the famous Milgram experiment, as you find yourself making cruel judgement calls based on your own need to obey the authorities, even if it means inflicting emotional harm - or worse - on some poor schmuck. Later, when you gain the option to strip search suspects and have them carted off by the secret police, it's disturbingly easy to cross the line into monstrous behaviour, justifying it as being essential to "win" the game - a post-modern spin on the old "I was only following orders" defence.
With its oppressive 16-bit visuals and stomping Eastern Bloc soundtrack - all ominous parps, sinister trills and garbled Tannoy announcements - Papers, Please feels a lot like an interactive anxiety attack. It's hard to call such a nerve-shredding experience "fun", but it is absorbing, brilliantly written and causes you to question your every instinct and reaction - both in the game and in real life. Such bleakness will be an acquired taste, of course, but the deep note of bitterness in Papers, Please makes for a welcome change.