Check. Stamp. Next.
An elderly woman walks up to the booth with an excited look on her face. She informs me that because of the recent re-opening of the Arstotzkian border, she will be able to see her son for the first time in six years. After hearing that, I precede to check her papers, expecting everything to be in order. But then I spot a discrepancy. Her passport’s issuing city was invalid. I point it out to the woman, and she pleads for me to let her though. Unfortunately, I can’t afford to be merciful. I’ve already received two citations today, and I can’t afford to have five dollars deducted from my already small paycheck… I have a family to feed. I place a “Declined” stamp on her Passport, she walks out stunned by my lack of compassion, I shout “Next!” into my intercom, and hope I don’t have to make another tough decision like that, at least for the rest of the day.
Papers, Please is ruthless, don’t let its pixelated graphics fool you. This game will make you feel like an awful person, no matter what decisions you make.
Set on the border of fictitious Soviet Russia-esque country “Arstotzka”, Papers, Please opens up with a short cutscene that explains what your part in its world is. Your name was entered into the Labor Lotto, and subsequently picked. You have been assigned to man your country’s admission booth. You must attend to at least ten possible immigrants a day before your time runs out, or you will almost assuredly not be able to feed your family, or pay for their other needs.
The gameplay is tedious, and repetitive. I never thought I’d say this, but that’s actually a good thing in Papers, Please‘s case. This game is — for lack of a better term — a border admission simulator, and, as such, tedium is completely acceptable. Especially when it helps sell the player on the game’s grim, clinical, and largely oppressive atmosphere. Luckily, the game isn’t without its curve-balls, but I wont go into any of them since they step slightly into spoiler territory. But your day-to-day job in the game is to cross-check traveler’s passports, entry certificates, and other things of that nature. Over time, there will be more and more papers to check, and things grow more and more hectic. The game will require your full attention, especially if you intend to pay for your family’s needs. Luckily, because of the game’s fantastic UI, it wont be long before you begin to form a routine, and work efficiently.
The family component in Papers, Please is a sort of fascinating meta-game. You never meet them face-to-face, and you never converse with them. But something still drove me to keep those names lit with an “OK” status, even if it meant not permitting someone to pass through my border who desperately needed to.
Another thing that acts as a great assistant to the game’s grim atmosphere is its minimalist graphics. This is an especially effective visual style when something unsightly happens within the game. The minimalist presentation makes the occasional terrorist attack all the more disturbing, leaving much of the resulting carnage to the player’s imagination.
This review could be a whole lot longer. I could explain how the game’s story evolves over time, and explore its different twists that are fueled by your decisions, but that would be a disservice to anyone who wants to check the game out. Call me lazy, but some things are best left for you to find out yourself. This game is great, and I’ll leave it at that.