Welcome to the glorious state of Arstotzkian, Comrade!
A self-described “dystopian document thriller”, Papers, Please is a wonderful, poignant and darkly funny video game in the style of an early DOS adventure. The designer, Lucas Pope, has put the user in the role of an immigration inspector for the fictional iron-curtain state of Arstotzkan. Using only primitive 1980s Soviet-style inspection tools, the user is tasked with attempting to determine just which travelers can be let through, which must be rejected and which must be seized at once by the glorious Arstotzkian security forces!
Not only is our customs inspector caught between upholding the increasingly complex rules and regulations on imposed by the authoritarian regime, but he is also stuck dealing with demands from corrupt bureaucrats and spies, dodging (or participating in) violent terrorist attacks by a shadowy conspiracy movement threatening the state itself, and struggling with the added pressure of earning enough cash to keep his family in food, medicine and a heated apartment in this triumphant workers paradise!
Trailer for Papers, Please
Game Play of Papers, Please
Papers, Please is a very straightforward game, modelled in the style of early DOS-based point-and-click adventure games. Nearly all of the game's action takes place in the customs agent screen, and consists of simple point-and-click tasks and isolated keystrokes.
The newly-minted customs agent is informed that hidden among the throngs of immigrants, tourists, migrant workers and returning native Arstotzkians – who all must be passed through your customs station without delay – are evil smugglers, spies, fugitives and terrorists that certainly must be stopped, along with a wide-variety of foreign and domestic travellers with forgotten or bungled paperwork that you must straighten out or reject.
The user must inspect and compare each passport with the Ministry of Admission's inflexible but oft-changing guidelines and notices, as well as for consistency with the other required documents, forms, geographical quirks and the very statements and physical appearance of the travellers themselves. What starts in the game's early days as a relatively easy check for basic consistency (say, to be sure the traveller's passport is issued in a valid city in their home country) soon becomes a fiendish exercise in spotting a sole wrong letter in a forged customs seal, or remembering that today all travellers from a certain region in a certain country will need their passports confiscated and given a stamped special additional piece of paperwork, provided of course their identity supplement, work permit and vaccination records are all in order, without a glaring error such as a misspelled name that would require an x-ray search for contraband and a fingerprint check.
Papers, Please's Story Mode
The story mode of Papers, Please is broken up into 31 playable days, all with a mixture of random events and recurring storylines. Each day, without fail, contains a touch of dark humour (such as the laughably unprepared but cheerful Jorji Costava) or a poignant, sad dilemma facing the user (perhaps deciding if to admit an unauthorized woman in need of a surgery not offered in her home country, or to separate a husband and wife, one of which who is lacking proper documentation, in both cases with the knowledge that failure to uphold the rules may lead to draconian penalties against you and your family).
At the end of each day, the user is given a budget, with their income – derived from payments received for processing each traveller, with any potential bribes mixed in – subtracted from their expenses, such as food, heat, rent and medicine. Save carefully and pass judgment on a high-volume of travellers and the user can move their well-fed and healthy family into a glorious Class 5 apartment one day. Be foolish, or fail to balance performance with keeping the favour of powerful interests at the customs checkpoint, and a sick, cold family could find themselves sent back to your rural village...or far worse.
"Things do not go well for you, my former Comrade..."
The Papers, Please Endgame
A big factor for the re-playability of the story mode version of Papers, Please is the 20 different endings that the user can receive. For seemingly minor infractions, such as not admitting the friend of a senior officer of the Ministry of Admission, the customs agent can find themselves imprisoned or even shot. As befits the dystopian feel of Papers, Please, there are far more negative than positive outcomes, and following the rules in all respects will essentially guarantee an unfortunate end for our customs agent hero. Still, a strange charm is found in trying to figure just all the unique, often coldly hilarious ways the user can land in a sticky situation. Of course, there is a joy in helping our inspector prosper and potentially escape the grim world of Arstotzkan, but no true patriot could stand not being part of the shining future of this workers paradise, regardless of temporary disruptions of medicine or food supplies!
Critical Reception for Papers, Please
The popularity of Papers, Please is nearly unprecedented for such a decidedly low-tech, quirky indie video game. The awards for Papers, Please include the following:
Winner – The New Yorker, Best Game of the Year for 2013;
Winner – PC World, Best Game of 2013;
Winner – Wired, Best Game of 2013;
Winner – Destructoid, Best PC Game of 2013; and
Winner – Ars Technica, Best Game of 2013.
Others have noted the game has a unique perspective and original approach, and delivers “an intense emotional reaction without smacking players over the head with political statements”, but do note that “the grindy, humdrum nature of the tasks can wear thin (even though that's kind of the point).”
While quirky, charming and strangely addictive, Papers, Please drives home a feeling of dread, frustration and repetition, which adds to the feeling of a repressive republic. Some have found the game to be, as a result, “tedious” and report being “torn between wanting to find out more, and just wanting it all to stop.”
Conclusion: Papers, Please is a Glorious Workers Triumph!
Papers, Please is a unique game, offering a good amount of fun, challenge and re-playability. It is certainly not your typical modern video game, and while its low-graphic throwback approach may put off some, Papers, Please is a bold and fun distraction and a poignant journey that is highly recommended to all adventurous and open-minded game players.