Cold, uncompromising and unforgiving. These are traits you need to have when you want to succeed at working for an Arstotzkan checkpoint in Papers, Please. This game is as unique as they come with a low graphic interface, tense setting and heavy themes like poverty, terrorism and seeking asylum. Papers, Please manages to take what basically boils down to a paperwork simulator and turns it into a riveting experience that has you questioning whether it is right to do exactly as you’re told or to help your fellow man.
Set in an oppressive 1982, Papers, Please takes place in the fictional country of Arstotzka which bears similarities to an Eastern European country with its broken English and national pride (Glory To Arstotzka!). Papers, Please begins with you receiving the opportunity to work as a border control officer for Arstotzka. Your job is to approve or deny people who wish to enter the country based on how legit their travel documents and passports are. It’s as simple as that. As a man with a family, you must provide for them and try to get through as many applicants as possible before you have to clock out and return home where you divide up the money among your family. Does your sick son get his medicine, or does your cold wife receive heating? This is where the tension lies in Papers, Please. You want to be fast and get through as many applicants as possible to help your poor family but this speed can lead to mistakes, and mistakes cost you some of your pay, which in turn can ultimately cost your family’s life; it’s all about getting a good balance.
It’s easy to succeed at the beginning, but the game introduces more and more features that make the game downright distressing to play. The pacing of the game is fantastic, however, and you learn how to play little by little. Eventually, it all builds up and you need to pay a lot of attention to who is being allowed in the country. A man might have all of his details correct but you realise you forgot to check the expiration date of his visa. “Uh oh, you just got a citation from the Ministry. You’ve been deducted 5 credits.“ This is how unrelenting the game can be. You have to check if all the requirements are met and check them fast. Otherwise, your son might not live to see his next birthday…
Papers, Please‘s presentation is simple and it works. The game gives you a lot of things like passports, guidelines books and visas to deal with and you can lay them out neatly on a space as if it were actually your own desk. The game never makes your space feel cluttered as you can put away unnecessary items in a container in the corner, but the game can get hectic as there can be a lot of items on your desk space at one time. The graphics are somewhat crude, but it works with the tone of the game. The poor, grumpy faces in the game are ugly — and fair warning that you might have to force an applicant to strip down to nothing and gaze upon their crude, pixelated genitals as you progress in the game — but this can be turned off in the menu. Papers, Please is, by no means, a happy game, and it is shown through the grim graphics and harsh language from applicants that get refused. The music correlates with the atmosphere with a military and droning theme song that plays throughout the game, matching the strict regime you are now enforcing. The tone in Papers, Please is spot on, and it can really feel quite dark to play at times.
Papers, Please raises some tough issues throughout. You will often be placed in difficult scenarios where your gut instinct tells you to do one thing but your logical mind tells you to do another. A man who is behaving in a very shady manner can have all his documents in order but a tip from a previous application suggests that he is a stalker with bad intentions. Do you allow him into the country knowing what kind of person he is or do you protect the woman and refuse him entry at the cost of your own salary? One scenario had a man accepted into the country, but his wife had a missing visa. She desperately wanted to enter the country and rejoin her husband or else face death if she returned to her home country. Do you break protocol and allow the woman in or refuse her and try not to think of the consequences? These decisions must be made fast and it greatly succeeds in giving the game a sense of immediate urgency. However, the game is a bit of a (albeit incredibly impressive) one-trick pony. These types of events with moral ambiguity tend to happen around the same time, and each event like those above has its own arc that you will see time and time again upon having multiple playthroughs for different endings to the story. To always see the same old man who says he’ll get a new fake passport because “this one is no good” does take away from the game a bit, but there is an option for an “Endless” mode that removes these types of arcs, if you wish.
Overall, Papers, Please achieves something unique with its plot focused on a harsh life in a terrorist-plagued border patrol with danger at nearly turn, and it offers an experience unlike any other with the tough decisions you will often have to make. It may seem like a paper checker simulator on the surface where you need to make sure everything is legit, but it presents an engrossing yet grim experience that has you questioning which is more important: your moral conscience or progressing further in the game despite turning away needy people? Papers, Please offers a fantastic experience — and its initial “mundane gameplay” might turn away some — but the underlying experience with the budding applicants to the glorious nation of Arstotzka makes it tense and unforgettable. It’s hard to tell you why you’ll like this game, but once you break out the big green and red stamps and check those documents, you’ll realise what the game is all about and why you ought to keep playing.
(Review code provided by Lucas Pope. Thank you.)
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 8/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 8/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting Appeal – 7/10
Overall – 8/10
(Not an average)
Platform: PC, Mac
Developer: Lucas Pope