True uniqueness is not something one often encounters in gaming anymore. To make the next best game you usually have to build on those that have come before, taking elements from various places and adding enough new ideas of your own to make the game feel new and fresh. This is evident in all forms of games, whether it’s Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, Forza, or the Binding of Isaac. It’s not just games either, all forms of media borrow from elsewhere. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just how the world works.
So please note the importance when I say that Papers, Please is like nothing else. You will take up the role of a citizen of Arstotzka who is randomly selected to work as an immigration officer. Here you will be tasked with regulating who is let in and out of the glorious sovereign nation of Arstotzka. To do this you will be looking at passports to check the photo matches the face of the person who gave it to you, checking birth dates, expiration dates, and just generally checking information to try and make sure you don’t let undesirables into the country.[drop2]This is your job and you’ll be doing it in order to support your family: your wife, son, mother-in-law and uncle. You earn money for every person you legally let into the country and that money will be used to pay for rent, food, heating and anything else your family requires. Needless to say, money is tight and you’ll end up prioritising some things over others – do you pay for the heating tonight or your son’s medicine? You do not earn money for turning people away, whether they deserved to be turned away or not, but if you do either of them wrongly you will receive a citation. The first two citations per day are just warnings, but after that you’ll be charged, taking away some of your precious wages.
Each session is a day of work, giving you until 6pm to get through as many people as possible. The more you see, the more you’re likely earn provided you’re doing your job, but if you hurry you’re liable to make mistakes and miss out on the cash anyway. As the days go on you’re introduced to more and more things of which to keep track. At first you just need to check the validity of a passport, then people who are coming into the country to work will need a work permit, then there’s the full body scanner that is to be used to detect contraband, and so on. These additional gameplay element are often preceded by either an event or a newspaper article with headlines explaining the things that have happened, and at the beginning of each day you’ll get a note with instructions on what to look out for in addition to or instead of previous directions.
Some of these instructions are downright uncomfortable. Early in the game, a Kolechian blows up your security guards and the following day you’re given a full body scanner and told to scan all Kolechians. So it’s racial profiling. “You have been selected for a random search” is what you say as you scan the Kolechian, and then you look over a scan of this person naked to ensure they aren’t smuggling contraband. It’s uncomfortable in an amazing way, it hints at making a point about something like the TSA (that’s the Transportation Security Administration in this particular context, not TheSixthAxis) and its history of personal rights abuse. It’s clever and sometimes it’s nice to see a game that says something important.
On top of this, you’ll encounter interesting decisions to make during the course of the game. For example, a man goes through with all the right documents, but as he’s leaving he says to “please look after my wife” who is next in line. His wife does not have the right documents and, upon questioning, says that if she goes back to where she came from she will be killed. It’s left up to you whether or not you let her through. You can split up the couple and send the wife back to die or you can let her through and accept the citation – it might not even cost you anything if you’ve avoided citations so far. Then there’s the murderer who comes through and says he was framed, the man that you’re warned about in advance by a woman who suspects him of being a slaver, or the people who don’t have the right documents but do have a little bit of cash to help their case, if you’re willing to overlook it.
And as you continue doing your best at work, your family flounders as you struggle to meet all their needs with the meager earnings you pull in from your job. If it means you can get your son his medicine, or that you can feed your family for the first time in days, then maybe the citation is worth it.[drop]Graphically, Papers, Please is not an impressive game, but that isn’t really a problem. Arstotzka is a country of questionable ethics at best and the game’s dark aesthetic and simple, pixel graphics lends itself quite well to the setting. You spend most of your time looking at documents and passports and various related things anyway, each of which look sufficiently kosher and appropriate. All that matters is that the people in the window on the left look like the photo on their passport and the graphics are functional in that if they don’t, they’re probably using a fake passport. The music is great too, its oppressive, militaristic sound lending itself rather well to the soviet setting.
It’s rare I encounter a game like this. It’s full of misery and humanity and how it all ultimately comes down to pieces of paper. It highlights flaws in the system, it gets more and more difficult to keep track of all the rules and documents, and that’s pretty much the point. Papers, Please is really about bureaucracy and how it governs our lives. The decisions you make along the way in response to genuinely human moments that the paper doesn’t care about, but maybe you understand that most of the time things aren’t really black and white.
Papers, Please is available from the Humble store on its official site for $9.99 (around £6.45), where you will get the game DRM free and a key to redeem on Steam. You can also buy it from Steam or GOG for £6.99 or $9.99 respectively.
Original Image Credit: Zorkbot