Papers, Please is insidious. A nominee for the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at this year’s Independent Games Festival in March, it is tense, bleak, and grim. It is a game that forces you to make difficult moral choices that have no correct answers. You are under pressure and have no time to contemplate the consequences of your decisions until it’s too late to do anything about them. Papers, Please is fantastic!
In Papers, Please you play as a family man who has won the job lottery in the fictional country of Arstotzka. Your prize is a menial job pushing papers at an immigration checkpoint. It is your job to scrutinize every person attempting to cross the border into Arstotzka and either deny them entrance or allow them to go through. It may sound simple, and it is, but the challenge ramps up quickly as the regulations that you are forced to follow change and become more complicated on a daily basis.
One thing Papers, Please does very well is pacing. At its core, Papers, Please is a puzzle game. You are given a regulation book with rules, maps, and reference materials which will be your bible as you start out. The first few days on the job are pretty straightforward: call someone to your booth, check their paperwork to ensure that everything matches and is up to date, and deny entrance to anyone whose papers are not in order. Each day you will receive a memo from your superiors outlining any changes to how you will perform your duties for the day. They are never major revisions and instead build upon what you have learned the previous day. It’s a very intuitive system that never seems unfair even when you’re eventually juggling multiple documents and identity checking devices at the same time. If you make a mistake, you feel like you should have caught it and will do better next time.
Making mistakes is not something you want to do in Arstotzka. You are paid by the total number of people processed within normal business hours. You want to try and pass as many people through your inspection station as possible, but rushing through the job invariably leads to mistakes. Make enough mistakes and your pay starts to get docked. You barely make enough money to make ends meet on a good day, so any less than that and you are going to be forced to sacrifice essentials like heat, food, or medicine for your family. The further behind you get, the more the costs stack up. It’s a viscious snowball effect that has you searching for any advantage you can find.
Though money is the force that drives you early in the game, things get much more interesting as you start to feel like you are having a very real effect on the people coming in and out of your booth every day. It starts small. Someone may pass you a flyer for a local club. Someone else may give you a sob story about how she needs to get into the country to join her family. Another person may give you the name of a person who they say intends to do harm. It’s completely up to you what you do with this information. Do you follow your conscience at the risk of violating protocol and incurring monetary damages or do you follow the laws set by your government, no matter how senseless and restrictive? Whatever you choose, you better do it quickly. The clock is ticking and that person in your booth is costing your family money every second they stand there staring at you.
With twenty different endings, the decisions you make have an enormous effect on how your story turns out. Some decisions may not affect your overall story, but others may start you down a path that you can’t escape. For those of us who feel like we’ve missed out if we don’t see every bit of content in a game, Papers, Please has a superb auto save feature that allows you to start a game from any day that you have already played and even saves the different branching paths that you create with the decisions you make. This adds a great amount of replay value to the game since you don’t have to repeat the earlier days which can seem quite tedious after you’ve gotten the hang of the basics.
The storylines themselves involve terrorism, patriotism, and moral dilemmas set against the background of a cold war style totalitarian government. From the ponderous sounds of the title screen to the dour appearance of the people, Arstotzka is very reminiscent of Soviet Russia. It’s a cold, dark place and the sense of futility and detachment is strong. You have family members that you are responsible for, but they are only represented by words on a status screen that you view at the end of every day. They are basically reduced to money, each one of them being just another expense that you have to worry about without the added driving force of an emotional attachment. The lack of this type of familial motivation may be seen as a weakness in the game for some, but it does allow you more freedom to focus on your job and the overall story which can be a good thing.
In the end, the outcome of Papers, Please depends solely on you and how you choose to wield the power of your lowly position. There is a war brewing around Arstotzka, and you are on the front lines. The lives of your family are at stake. The fate of a growing sect of terrorists/freedom fighters is at stake. The glory of Arstotzka is at stake! How will you handle the pressure?