Who would have thought that a game about bureaucracy could be so incredibly entertaining? The premise behind Papers, Please is simple – you have gained a job through the labour lottery and you are now the inspector at the newly opened border.
You need to check each person’s documents to determine if they are allowed into the 1980s miscellaneous Communist country, Arstotzka. You are paid based on the number of people that you process, but don’t expect your salary to cover much more than rent, heat and food – if you can even afford that.
As far as actual game play goes, the game is straight forward – it is, at its core, a spot the difference game. You need to check the passports, ensure the names are spelled correctly, stamps and seals are accurate, and as the game progresses conduct searches on people who do not match descriptions to ensure they aren’t carrying contraband. If you make mistakes you will receive warnings and eventually salary deductions – something quite critical when you are barely making ends meet.
The genius of the game comes in the story telling. Each day you will be faced with real stories of hardship; you can choose what kind of border guard you want to be. Will you be lenient and let the wife in to join her husband even though she doesn’t have the necessary documents? Will you support the secret society striving to overthrow the government? Each move you make can cause various repercussions – not just financially, but to the overall story. It is up to you if you remain loyal to Arstotzka, if you are meticulous or sloppy with your job, and how well you look after your family. Will you take bribes? Will you break rules? This could send you on a path towards one of 20 different endings.
The pacing is very well done – adding new rules as your skills improve. One day you may not be allowed to grant entry to anyone from a particular country, the next day you might be instructed to confiscate passports from locals. Each day comes with a unique set of challenges – wanted people, unique stories, individual needs. Just when you think you’ve gotten the hang of things, new rules pop up – or your focus shifts and you forget about the old ones. I still remember checking one woman’s papers so carefully – her passport was valid, entry permit was correct and matched her verbal responses to questions, so I stamped her passport and welcomed her to Arstotzka, only to be fined for allowing someone in with a gender that didn’t match. Yup, her passport said she was a man! In future play throughs I was careful to also always check genders, leading to some weird interrogations and searches. I suppose that makes this game less than friendly to gender bending people, but it fits with the oppressive, pseudo-Soviet state.
Papers, Please has taken up many, many hours of my life already, and I still haven’t gotten all 20 endings. I just can’t stop playing – I keep wanting to go for one more day, one more inspection. Each time I play, the experience and story is different and interesting. This little gem is definitely worth your attention. Pick it up on Steam (Mac and PC versions available) for ten bucks, and prepare to pour in hours of your life – for the Glory of Arstotzka!
Papers Please was reviewed by Zoe Hawkins on a PC