In the short film adaptation of Papers, Please, fans and players familiar with the game may have snapped to attention at the mention of a first name: “Elisa will come,” says Sergiu, the guard.
“What time,” says the Inspector.
Though Papers, Please, the acclaimed 2013 game by Lucas Pope, enforces its brutal expectations of you, the player-bureaucrat, through random encounters at an Eastern bloc checkpoint, there are some set pieces designed to test the player’s compassion and trust. Elisa is one. Sergiu is her lover. He wants her to be able to cross at Grestin, the fictitious divided city of Papers, Please, but she doesn’t have the proper credentials. In the game, allowing her entry will result in a sanction for the player.
“There’s not a lot of information about Elisa in the game,” said Nikita Ordynskiy, the director of Papers, Please. “We took her lines from the game, but when we were creating the character we were working with very little information. (We assumed) she had been through a lot in her life.”
“We” references Ordynskiy, the director of Papers, Please and Liliya Tkach, the film’s producer. The two met in university, studying film. Their 10-minute vignette debuted on YouTube and Steam last week, following a live premiere in Russia at the end of January.
Subtitled in nearly two dozen languages, Papers, Please the film has earned a strongly positive reaction on Youtube (well more than a 100:1 upvote to downvote ratio) and on Steam (“overwhelmingly positive” among about 3,000 user reviews). To watch two other works by Tkach and Ordynskiy is to understand why Pope’s video game appealed to them enough to pitch him on the idea of a film, even when they had no connection to him and no real assurance he’d even want to collaborate.
As filmmakers, Tkach and Ordynskiyhave told very personal stories of individuals whose high self esteem and dignity are challenged by the reality of a crushing system around them. Tkach, for the Moscow Institute of Television and Radio Broadcasting, wrote and directed Freelance in 2016, in which the protagonist manages the ambition and bursting self-image of being a young freelance filmmaker against the indignities of daily life and disruptions of not having a regular job.
Ordynskiy, also for MITRB, in 2015 directed Gorbatov, a short film about a beloved local politician who lost his office thanks to a fraudulent election, and keeps up appearances by maintaining a weathered campaign billboard that his successor has ordered demolished.
So Tkach and Ordynskiy may have been perfect for the job of relating the story of Papers, Please, but Pope had no way of knowing it when they reached out last year.
Like the Inspector in his game, he judged their credentials and listened to their personal appeal, and it resonated.
“Liliya and Nikita’s idea was almost fully formed and, especially, short,” Pope told Polygon via email. This was important, because while he’d been pitched on other TV or film adaptations of the game since its launch, Pope felt that he “couldn’t apply the proper level of crushing micromanagement to those projects” because of their scope.
“Their production experience was evident from their student films, so for me it was just a lot easier to say, ‘This will turn out OK without my constant and unwelcome attention,’” Pope said. Adding in the fact the couple did not want to commercialize the work was the cherry on top. “It made it much simpler to work out the licensing technicalities,” Pope added.
Ordynskiy amd Tkach said they were surprised not only to get a reply from Pope, but also to get into a collaborative arrangement. They had looked at all of the story branches in Pope’s game and thought hard about how to sell him on the idea of an adaptation. “We chose a family story,” Ordynskiy said.
That worked perfectly. Pope said he was worried that Papers, Please could be misrepresented or misinterpreted in the non-interactive medium of a film. “Because they came to me with nearly the final script this wasn’t such a problem here,” he said.
But as much as Tkach and Ordynskiy were anxious about getting Pope to agree to the film project, they were even more hopeful to land the actor who ultimately became the Inspector. He is Igor Savochkin, a 54-year-old actor who had a role in 2014’s Leviathan, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards in 2015.
“We were really worried he would not agree to it,” Tkach said.
“The fact he agreed to play the role in the film is the second most important thing to the film” Ordynskiy said, after Pope agreeing to the adaptation. “He did an amazing job.”
Pope was likewise floored by the portrayal.
“Before his casting, I would’ve had trouble picturing exactly what the Inspector looks like,” Pope said. “Actually, while making the game I made a conscious effort to not picture him. His only appearance in the game is a few pixels from an old photo. Seeing Igor in the film, I think he fits the role perfectly.”
In the short film, the Inspector — whose character is nameless and portrayed by the player in the game — is a family man, keeping a picture of his wife and children at his desk. Reflecting upon that sentiment drives some of his decisions later in the story.
“I thought the game elements they chose were basically perfect,” Pope said. “There’s not much time in (roughly) 10 minutes to tell a story, and they picked some of the best threads from the game. The overall structure works well — there’s just the tiniest bit of context before jumping into the inspector’s daily grid. I also quite like how they reframed the husband/wife characters to combine several encounters.
I’ve speculated that Tkach and Ordynskiy want viewers to second-guess the Inspector and his sympathies and invent back stories for those who pass his control point. When the film launched, it appeared to me that it was a comment on happenstance, that if a different person had not come through the checkpoint, perhaps the Inspector would not have admitted the next couple later whose incongruent documentation and ordinary personal circumstances preyed upon his internal conflict.
“One thing that I tried to capture with the game is the vague ambiguity of border control,” Pope said. “Even though you make life-changing decisions, there’s only the documents in front of you for guidance. You know very little about what brought people to the checkpoint, and almost nothing about what happens to them when they leave, approved or denied. That forms a core element of the game’s experience and I’m glad that it carries over to the film.”
The film does a striking job of picking things up from there. Not to spoil the conclusion, but the Inspector is jolted out of his bureaucratic drudgery, and comes to a horrible reckoning of how his actions may have abetted it. Tkach said she and Ordynskiy have been delighted to read fan theories about who the characters really are, or what they may be doing. “They’ve suggested the guard (Sergiu, Elisa’s lover) may be connected,” to the climactic sequence, she said. “It feels really nice, one of the biggest reactions we got is they want more, they want a bigger movie.”
Pope is very happy with the outcome of the short film, and intrigued by the idea of a longer story. But “I’m still a game-maker at heart, so I don’t know what ‘further’ means exactly.” Pope is still deep in development with Return of the Obra Dinn, a game nearly four years in development, which evokes the low-res, hypercard style of narrative games on the first Macintosh computers.
For now, he, Tkach and Ordynskiy are happy with this result: Compact, thought-provoking, leaving the audience asking for more.