One of Papers, Please’s biggest successes is how it turns the deeply mundane into something exciting. It asks that you inhabit a very realistic situation and cope with not only the stresses of performing your role, but those that come with it.
You act as a border guard who daily looks for suspicious mistakes or forgeries in travel documents. A dystopic government employs you to keep out unwarranted visitors to your eastern-bloc country. They don’t pay you nearly enough and they continually pile on the amount of work you need to perform in order to earn it. It’s up to you what you do to make ends meet and justify your choices.
The process starts simply enough at the border’s inauguration. Someone will approach your booth with a passport. You check to see if it has expired, whether or not their photo resembles them and in more advanced cases you can check your operating manual to see if the city it was issued in is valid. You do this as fast as possible because you’re paid for each person you process, then at the end of the day you take the cash home and decide whether or not you can afford to provide food and heat for your family.
Each day something more taxing is introduced. Few rules are often levied on native Arstotzkans, but foreigners will need the correct ticket, or pass, or permit (all of which have to be within the expiry date, match the name and code on the passport, contain the correct stamp which shows they aren’t forgeries and so on depending on the form). Sometimes your operating rules only stay in effect for a single day, others last forever. You aren’t meant to get everything right. You will inevitably make mistakes and suffer the consequences.
Oddly the closest gameplay comparison is to a Diner Dash or Cook Serve Delicious, anything where you’ve set tasks to do as quickly as possible, but somehow Papers, Please conveys all of the same frantic worrying without also bringing along any of the same whimsy. It’s a deeply distressing game more in-line with Cart Life. It very rarely breaks the mood for limited (and welcome) comic relief.
At a point it stops being just a “Life-Simulator”. It’s as relevant a commentary on the failings of fascist government policy as any other media. It’s a compelling explanation covering how such a society can prevail through many people’s willingness to make the smallest steps in an attempt to care for themselves and their family.
You’ll break regulations just so that your superiors are happy. You’ll do things you know are wrong because you’ve a sick son at home who needs medicine. You’ll take bribes (sometimes from other staff who need a favour, sometimes from desperate immigrants), but you’ll find a way to justify doing it. You may even take your own morals into account and allow people to pass through your checkpoint if their stories are convincing enough. You’re allowed two mistakes per day and can choose to risk the fine you’ll receive if you let too many people pass. You’ll make friends with returning characters and it might get in the way of whether or not you can stand to turn them away.
There are a few curveballs to all of this. Some of the new mechanics introduced have no baring on the rules of the border and are purely optional. Some are introduced once and forgotten. Each day is varied in some way, but you’ll still get stuck diligently searching through forms.
It would be a shame to talk about the more amazing choices that the game makes, but subplots are developed, left dangling for a while and wrapped up in over 20 possible endings at various points in the game. Dramatic moments unfurl that will stick with you and the decisions you make feel weighty enough to consider long after you’re finished playing.
Mostly it feels earned when you make a mistake, as if you missed something directly in front of your face, except for the aforementioned check to see if the issuing city is valid. Any time that arises it feels a little cheap that the game expects you to either memorise all the cities in a country within your handbook or flip it to the correct page for each nationality’s passport, but even this complaint feels valid enough in the context of too much being expected of you. It feels unfair, but it’s supposed to be.
Papers, Please might sounds like it’s a little niche, that the appeal is too limited, but it’s about as much fun as you can have destroying the dreams of people hoping to better their lives.
10 out of 10
A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.