Papers, Please reverses the fantasy role we take for granted in video games – the role of the hero. It can feel like a dystopian bureaucratic simulation, since you play as a downtrodden citizen almost straight out of Nineteen Eighty-Four. At times, there is a glimmer of hope amidst the seemingly endless stream of poor, pixelated faces seeking entry across the border. Papers, Please isn’t inherently fun – nor should it be – because it offers something compelling, thoughtful, and ponderously believable.

Freshly selected from the labor lottery in the bleak Soviet-styled nation of Arstotzka, you are confined to a dank booth and responsible for deciding who comes through and who doesn’t. At the beginning of every new day, the Ministry of Admission provides details on standing immigration laws that dictate what kinds of people are allowed or what documents they require. If everything checks out, pull out the grille and stamp their passport green. However, if an expiration date has passed, gender is unclear, documents bereft, or the passport plain fraudulent: ka-chunk, stamp it red and send them packing.

But it doesn’t have to play out this simply, and that is when Papers, Please becomes something more than it might have otherwise remained. At the end of each work day an ominous black screen tallies up your earnings based on how many applicants you processed. Buying food, heat and medicine keeps your family alive, but as each day brings new procedures to follow, applicants take more time to process, and it’s easy to find your loved ones cold, hungry or sick, and sometimes all three at once.

Wages remain appropriately low and it’s easy to fall into dire straits. Subordinate yourself too much and you may fall in debt, land in jail and the state deports your family. Get too frugal, however, and they wither and eventually die. Oh, and you get sent to prison anyway.

At the booth you may have to accept bribes, perform favors and disobey authority just to keep your family alive. The accretion of mental tasks makes checking procedure a scramble for time and the limited space for documents, which you must drag and arrange yourself, become a major liability. Part puzzler and part micromanager, knowledge of town names and the daily rules make Papers, Please more than just determining the odd-one-out. There is an insidious satisfaction to spotting errors and painting passports red in a cold state of confidence. Reaching for the approved stamp soon feels like defeat – unless wrenching loved ones apart based on small details comes without qualm. Suffer pressure, get lazy or act impulsively and you will receive a citation of failure. Receive too many citations, and find parts of your salary purloined in the name of glorious Arstotzka.

But the game is at its best when the menial process of cross-referencing documents confronts some genuine ethical quandaries. There are moral decisions – some scripted –  like whether to thwart the leader of a prostitution ring before he claims a helpless girl. And then there’s the question of the endearing yet ignorant fellow who has finally turned up with legitimate looking papers after a stream of obvious fakes. The right action doesn’t always come with ease, especially when high-minded generosity might mean less for the folks back home. Once I factored in time, sometimes I justified crimson by quietly telling myself I was just following orders. You might wish you let someone in need cross the border for a minor warning, or you had burnt that bribery money that caused an investigation. But keep in mind that destitution is only a short walk away.

Aside from the document checking and micromanaging, the game offers a plot that isn’t deep by any means, but ties in perfectly to the dreary backdrop. The only thing that holds it back is that, once over some challenging hurdles, penny-pinching to survive starts to feel repetitive. It’s one of the few games that could benefit from a shorter campaign to sharpen conflicts and tell focused side-stories all in a comfortable sitting. But, maybe this was the intention because Papers, Please doesn’t set out to please. And the menial, heavily scripted nature of the game does fit in with the overall chic, even if it discourages the chase for the 20 possible endings. There’s also an endless mode which reduces the experience to perpetual greyness, blaring tannoys and grumbling souls. Here it becomes less captivating and merely fatalistic.

There’s something to be said about the way Papers, Please comes at you. It isn’t inviting, or necessarily fun, but not unpleasant. It does an amazing job of reminding that you’re an essential part of a grand machine, but a part that is easily replaced. And as dull as skimming through documents seems, the layers of tension create an experience so unnerving I couldn’t help but feel like a citizen in the dying days of some corrupt communist regime. Very few games have shown what such a dehumanizing role can feel like. And though the bleakness might be an acquired taste, Papers, Please tests you in a way games rarely do.

Review: Papers, Please
Papers, Please might grow dull after a stretched campaign and witnessing an endless sea of desolation. Though scouring for every bribe and wage to keep the family alive feels instantly monotonous, the grim atmosphere encapsulates a fresh, compelling puzzler that confronts your capacity for good or evil in a way that no morality meter could account for.
Pros
  • Thought-provoking
  • Fresh, original mechanics
  • Decisions hold real weight
Cons
  • Campaign loses impact before the end
  • Heavily scripted situations
8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (5 Votes)
8.8

About The Author

Contributor

Since his parents scraped every last penny to put a Nintendo 64 under the Christmas tree of 1996, Adrian has maintained a passion for video games. When his hands aren't sprawled over 'W', 'A', 'S' or 'D', Adrian churns out a few sentences, and sometimes paragraphs, about the games that graze an emotional touchstone.

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