Games that don’t necessarily have AAA budgets or teams in the hundreds are becoming best-sellers, and more likely to intrigue you, for at least a little while. Papers Please is one of those games.
Sickeningly difficult and emotionally destructive, Papers, Please puts you in the role of an immigration officer working in the fictional country of Arstotztka. This oppressive and somewhat dull setting is your work space. It’s mostly grey and black is the perfect setting for a game where almost everyone is (with good reason) depressed to buggery.
Basic gameplay has you sitting in a border control booth and having a queue of people line to be processed. They give you their passport (most of the time anyway) and any other information you might need, and your job is to check these documents are valid and either admit or deny them access to the country. Sounds simple? Well maybe the first day. You might take your time on the first play through, checking every letter of every name matches up, checking gender, making sure their details are thoroughly correct and THEN stamping them through. You can sleep easy on your first day, admitting some, denying others, but when your first day ends, this is when it gets tough.
Papers, Please pays you at the end of every day depending on how many people you process, this eventually cumulate to a total earned per day. This is where the problems begin. Let’s say you earn 50 credits, that’s all well and good. Made a mistake or two? That’s minus 5 credits per mistake, rent, that’s 20 credits, food for everyone, 20 credits, heating, 5 credits, if someone’s sick, 5 more credits for medicine. You’ll think you’ve done well until you see your bottom line.
Maintaining your family’s welfare is expensive, and can often leave you with nothing at the end of the day. This is surprisingly heart wrenching considering I’ve never even seen these words on the screen, but for some damn reason I care. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices, sorry Wife, no food tonight, sorry little Billy (stock son in bad situation name) you’ll have to go cold tonight. The game then gets harder, with more rules and regulations and more details to check. Soon your brain is cluttered, certain people need to be searched because of something terrible that happened yesterday. People need passes to be admitted, a passport isn’t enough any more. The game has you juggling information in your brain and soon both your mind and desk is cluttered with information that, if you wish to earn enough money to stay afloat, you have to rush to process. The problem is you can’t take your time. This is a game that demands practice and extreme attention to detail.
The frustrating part comes when you try and find a problem. Let’s say the passport someone is using is obviously fake, they don’t look like the picture and the gender is wrong, you have to click on the button on the bottom right (later ‘upgrades’ are made available for money) and then find the two errors. Then you can interrogate the person, but the interrogations are open-ended and don’t always present an obvious solution. For example, I challenged someone on gender, and they said ‘It’s as is it says on the document.’ Call me stupid but what does that mean? I figured it meant ‘Yes, I am an extremely manly looking woman’ and I processed her. But the little pink bastard of a notification told me that I had made yet another error and 5 credits were deducted. Dick Move Papers, Please, Dick Move. Maybe I’m being too harsh, but aside from a few frustrating moments the game has a satisfying depth. The gruelling difficulty makes winning even more satisfying.
Certain moments surprise, the first time you see a terrorist attack take place you panic, as though you might have done something wrong. Watching a little 16-bit ish human explode is never comfortable. And then something enters your mind, ‘My day just ended early, and now I can’t afford rent’, instead of ‘Oh crap, that guy just died’. Certain events are there for humour, like a guy who keeps coming back with forged passports, but others are just purely there to tug at heart strings. For example, a man arrives with impeccable credentials, his passport correct, then at the end of the processing he says that his wife will be coming through and to be nice to her. Guess how legible her credentials are? So now you have to choose between breaking up a married couple, and losing money.
Doing the charitable thing can often earn you odd rewards, I earned a badge from two different people for letting them through when maybe I shouldn’t have. Certain women and pimpy looking guys hand you cards for strip joints, and your rule book becomes increasingly more important. You’ll soon find yourself surrounded by things you can’t remove, so organising becomes difficult. Later on in the game the option to strip search people and fingerprints becomes available, making things even busier.
All in all Papers, Please has surprising depth and is definitely worth your time. For a game that looks and feels oppressive it has a way of drawing you in, its unique approach and art style is its saving grace, the bland style and SNES era graphics apply well to the feeling of old fashioned oppression. It’s a game that will frustrate you, but will challenge you like you haven’t been challenged in a while. At its cheap Steam price you should pick it up as soon as you can.