This game has won a ton of videogame awards and for once, I absolutely agree with the critics’ choice. I really have nothing bad to say about it. It’s a game in which you play an immigration officer who mans a border control checkpoint of a fictional country in the 1980s. Called Arstotzka, it’s an obvious send-up of a dystopian dictatorship with a vaguely Eastern European feel. Your job is to check through all of the documents of each and every arrival and to either approve their entry or deny them.
- I can’t actually say that this was much fun for me but it is a fantastic and wholly original videogame experience. Part of it is because it simulates the tedium of just sitting in one place and checking documents so perfectly that it feels just like real work. What’s worse is that the amount of work is endless and you have a painfully limited amount of time each day in which to do the processing. This being a repressive government, you’re paid at the end of each day only according to the amount of work you do and you have rental, food and heating expenses for yourself and your family.
- In most other games, it takes you a while to learn the ropes but eventually you develop the skills to master the game and become comfortable. But that wouldn’t fit with the tone of this game and the lessons it is trying to teach. Instead, the immigration rules start out simple: all arrivals need to have a valid passport and you need only check that the information in it is consistent. But almost every day new rules are added. First, foreigners must demonstrate that they have an entry ticket for today’s date. Then they must have an entry permit. Then they must present a document that includes full biometric information and so forth. Even the limited desk space that you have available is a concern, since you must overlap documents on top of each other and dig through them. It’s a brilliant way of stressing the player out and make you feel like you’re pedaling ever harder just to stay in the same place.
- What really, really impressed me is the richness of the world as presented on the playing screen. There are all sorts of little touches like how the arriving travelers and the guards move around, the fact that you can actually hang stuff on the wall, that you can interrogate travelers and perform a body scan on them, that there is violence and you can see it happen and so on. Your window into this world is incredibly tiny but the game uses the limited screen real estate to great effect to suggest a much larger world with all sorts of things happening in the background.
- All that and it has story too! Not just the main plot about you and the country of Arstotzka, which is very well done in its own right, but all of the little stories about the people who arrive and even the guards. The recurrent character Jorji Costava is a fan favorite and a great bit of comic relief in what is otherwise a thoroughly dark and depressing universe. I especially love how the story bits encourage you to make choices that are actually detrimental to you if you’re a heartless monster who cares only about min-max optimization.
In short, get this game. It may not have much replay value but its originality and pitch perfect execution makes it a must-play in my book. It’s the perfect example of how videogames can indeed be a work of art that embodies social and political commentary.