Papers, Please isn’t for everyone. It makes sacrifices that may hinder your “fun” with the game, but these decisions have a purpose. There is a very specific experience Papers, Please wants you to have, one that revolves around frustration and difficult decisions. But those willing to put up with a few obtuse design choices will find an extremely interesting experiment: one that focuses on the life of a low income cog within a giant corrupt machine. And while it may lack pure tactile enjoyment, Papers, Please is overflowing with charm and intrigue.
Papers, Please throws players into a faux-Eastern European country of Arstotzka. After winning the government’s job lottery, you’re assigned to work the border, checking the documents of incoming citizens and immigrants alike. While there isn’t much of a strict narrative, the world itself is extremely well-realized, especially considering the minimalist visuals. Through the roughly drawn people you meet each shift and a daily newspaper, events unfold depicting a 1984-esque world, full of corrupt ministries and violent revolutionaries. You, as the nameless border agent, find yourself thrust into this conflict whether you want to be or not. And all throughout, little bits of humor and charm are sprinkled to keep you amused as your life slowly deteriorates.
The actual gameplay of Papers, Please revolves around literally sifting through official documentation to make sure each person passing through the walled-off border is doing so legally. While this may sound absurdly boring at face value, the process feels much more like a puzzle than real work. Early days are filled with simply checking expiration dates on passports, and making sure photo IDs match the crudely drawn portraits. When discrepancies are found, you must point out the error and the investigation deepens. A back-and-forth develops with the immigrant in question, eventually needing the use of a fingerprint database or full body scanner. In the end, you must decide to refuse or allow entry. But no matter the outcome, the process takes time, and that is always in short supply.
Sections of the game are broken into days, and as each comes to a close, payments are doled out for every person processed. So the key becomes processing as many people as possible as quickly as possible. However, move too fast and make too many mistakes in a single shift, and citations will eat away at that final pay stub. This becomes your worry as the dystopian world crumbles around you, as you must spend each day’s earnings supporting a family, but I’ll get back to that later. As days pass, more and more stipulations and rules are added, making the overall goal intensely frustrating at times. But for the most part, the difficulty slope is gradual and fair. That being said, the absolute precision needed to process every single immigrant can be a double edged sword.
Papers, Please shares much with the adventure genre, and unfortunately suffers from a few of the same problems. I’d often waste half a work day on a single person, not because I didn’t know what to do, but because I couldn’t remember the order of operations the game wanted me to take. The way in which the game presents information is convoluted to a fault. This is most likely an intentional design choice, given what Papers, Please is trying to say, but it becomes a broader problem. Frustration can stem not just from the fact that money is in short supply, or that new restrictions are in place, but from the basic act of interacting with the game. More than once I found myself stuck, simply unsure of what actions I needed to take to progress.
But gameplay gripes aside, there’s more to Papers, Please than the mechanical daily interactions. The pay you receive, and the number of people you can process in a given day seem to be paced in a very deliberate manner. You won’t get rich playing Papers, Please, and this is where the real stress begins to grow. From the outset, you have a full family to support, including a wife, kid, mother-in-law, and uncle. At the end of each day you’re presented with your measly earnings, followed by deductions for rent, heating, food, and eventually medicine for your constantly sick offspring.
This creates an additional nagging sensation while playing, one that I found slowly turned me into a complete nihilistic asshole by day 15. In my early days I felt compelled to help those in need. Anyone with a sob story might get a free pass, and even if I turned a poor soul away, I’d at least hear them out. A few days later my kid got sick because I couldn’t afford to pay my heating bill. While worrying about the heating bill, because I couldn’t let the rest of my family get sick, I decided to take a day or two before buying medicine. Then my kid died. But I couldn’t really worry about that, because now my uncle and mother-in-law were sick.
So maybe I took the bribe from the border patrol officer. Maybe I detained one too many innocent Kolechians because it got me some extra cash. As the days passed into the late teens, half my family was dead. By then there were so many rules I needed to follow, and so much money I needed to make, I didn’t care who you were. Your wife will be killed if I don’t let her through? Screw you; my wife is sick and I need money. Next. This slow but steady transformation in my general demeanor and playstyle is what makes Papers, Please so great. It’ll by no means bring you to tears, but it will tell an interesting story of failure that you shape.
And it does so with a nugget of truth buried beneath the depravity and dark humor. At its very core, Papers, Please is about working a terrible day job and not earning enough to make ends meet. Situations are extrapolated to extremes, but the message is still in there. Papers, Please succeeds at giving the player a slight taste of what that life is like, and it does so in a wonderfully creative way.
I’m not going to sit here and say Papers, Please is an artistic masterpiece, as those terms get thrown around far too often in this industry. The game isn’t perfect, but is more than interesting enough to overcome its downsides. If you’re looking for something truly unique in the modern swamp of AAA titles, Papers, Please will definitely fill that role. At $9.99, it’s a low-entry oddity that tells a compelling story about failure. And who knows? You might just experience a newfound perspective during your stay in Arstotzka.