November 23rd, 1982 – I lean forward and growl “NEXT!” into the copper microphone, I sit back as my voice echoes throughout the grey, desolate landscape that is the Grestin Checkpoint on the Arstotzka Border. I greet my final visitor of the day with the phrase “Papers, Please”, she slides her passport and entry permit onto my desk. While I get her to confirm her transit plans through the country, I am scanning her documents for any discrepancies. Her passport states that she is from Antegria but the seal on the front of her passport doesn’t look quite right. I grab my guidebook and hastily flip through to the Antegria page, it looks like Antegria has two different seals; one of which being the same one that is printed on the front of her passport.
I glance over the details on her documents and confirm that her name and passport number matches on both documents, and stamp APPROVED on the golden entry visa square. She grabs her papers and scurries across the border, as I stand up to leave at the end of my shift I hear the dreaded noise. *bzzt* *bzzt* *bzzt* *click* the freshly printed note reads “PENALTY ASSESSED – 5 CREDITS“, looks like my sick family is going to have to sleep without heating in our stone-cold apartment. It is painfully obvious that I made a mistake and now my family is going to have to pay for it.
I’m actually sitting in front of my computer monitor empathising with a family made up of a bunch of one’s and zero’s, playing a video game called Papers, Please, described by its creator Lucas Pope as “A Dystopian Document Thriller”. The game is set in 1982 in the fictional Eastern European country Arstotzka. You play as a border guard who’s duty it is to approve those who meet the daily conditions and deny or even detain the rest. You are paid per person processed, so it is in your family’s best interest to complete each person’s processing as quick as possible. At the end of the day you are given your pay and your living expenses are deducted, if a member of your family gets sick you will need to purchase costly medicine. Don’t have enough money to buy medicine? They will probably die.
The majority of the game is processing the documents you are given, which includes: checking expiry dates, ensuring names and passport numbers match on all documents, confirming that the seals and secondary information are legitimate and much more. The game slowly adds more complexity to the screening process but, living costs for your family continue to increase and your payment per person remains the same. Several opportunities arise that offer additional money for favours (that aren’t necessarily legal or ethical) and the game transforms into something much more than an immigration officer simulation. According to your rulebook, if the person has the correct credentials you should approve their application otherwise you should either deny or detain them. What makes Papers, Please interesting is that it lets you choose, as there are moral and/or monetary factors to consider for certain situations.
It takes a simple idea, and executes it really well and builds on that idea in meaningful ways. It adds more weight to your everyday decisions with opportunities to dramatically improve other characters lives without making you feel like a superhuman marine sent to destroy an alien threat. The game is presented well consistently and does a good job at adding personality to the game with the conversations you have with some of the recurring characters. My most memorable being Jorji Costava, an older man who relentlessly attempts to squeeze through the border with a collection of hilariously bad excuses for passports and permits. How you treat these characters can have a drastic effect on how the game’s story goes, being sympathetic for a man claiming to visit his son for the first time could result in a suicide bombing attempt. A lot of time can easily be spent in Papers, Please, with each play-through taking me a couple of hours and there being different 20 endings to the game in total. In addition to the story there is an endless mode with three variations:
- Timed (you have 10 minutes to process as many people as possible)
- Perfection (the game ends as soon as you make a mistake)
- Endurance (Play until you run out of money and fall into debt)
The genius of Papers, Please is how it transforms a repetitive but, well executed activity into an engaging experience that will have your stamping passports for hours. It is a fantastic combination of bleak 16-bit visuals, sinister beats and slick but simple, varied mechanics. Papers, Please is one of my favourite but most stressful experiences on the PC and is well worth the price of entry.
- Buy it
- Wait for discount
- Don't buy