Papers Please is a simple game, really: You work as a border checkpoint officer. All you have to do is decide whether or not people should be allowed to enter your country, based on the documents they provide. That description sounds bad; Papers Please wouldn’t be as effective of an experience without the setting in which the game takes place in. Let’s try that first paragraph again.
You work as a border checkpoint officer in the early 1980’s, a position you were lucky to get as a result of your country, Arstotzka’s labor lottery. A war with neighboring Kolechia in Eastern Europe has just come to an end, and your borders are slowly opening up. All you have to do is decide whether or not people should be allowed to enter your country, based on the documents they provide, but it is in your best interests to approve or deny people as fast as possible, so that you can make enough money to pay rent, keep your house heated, and prevent your family from starving.
Everything about this game screams desperation. The opening music of the title screen is a low-pitched dirge of a march, a tune that reminds me of my character’s walk every day to the border checkpoint. The sad, muted colors of the checkpoint are depressing. The line of people looking to get into Arstotzka never ends, and some that make it into your checkpoint booth will voice their frustration. The faces of the travelers, migrant workers, and potential new citizens are rendered with a two-tone washed out face, and a garment of a single color. The faces do not animate, and they never look happy.
As I said, you’ll want to keep processing people as fast as you can to try and make enough money to pay your expenses. The status of your family is represented with simple status icons. You never see pictures or hear from the rest of your family, but the very fact that I am told that these little icons represent whether or not my son is dead are enough of a motivator to try to work hard enough to keep everyone alive, and at first this is easy.
Each portion of the game is broken up into days of work. Each day, additional rules are added to customs processing to make the process more complex. It starts simply enough, you only need to look at the passport’s country of origin. By the end, you need to look at the passport, match it to the entry permit, make sure the names and passport numbers match up, check to make sure the issuing county is valid, verify the seals on the documents are authentic, and if the person is coming to work, check the work permit against the other two documents, and make sure those numbers match as well. Trying to keep all of these papers in order is difficult because your desk is very small, and you can’t look at all of this information simultaneously. Any number of things could be wrong with the paperwork, including something as simple as the picture on the passport not matching the picture of the person. As the number of things you have to check grows, it becomes much easier for these obvious problems to fall through the cracks. If you start to make too many mistakes, your pay will be docked.
There’s more to the narrative than just processing customs. Your checkpoint can be the site of terrorist attacks, ending your workday early. You might have a husband and wife together in line, and while the husband’s paperwork is correct, the wife’s is not. Internationally wanted men will come through your booth, and if you’re not vigilant, they will enter Arstotzkan territory, often with poor consequences for your homeland.
The beta ends after a few days of gameplay, but I found myself replaying the game over and over. The narrative events repeat themselves, but the game design is solid. I found myself trying to beat my personal high scores on each day. My ability to notice discrepancies, and the speed at which I caught them, improved to the point that not only was I able to keep my family alive, I was able to make a profit. I feel like the gameplay feedback loop in Papers Please isn’t that different from a puzzle game like Tetris. You have a limited time to make the best decision that you can with the information in front of you, whether it’s looking at documents, or trying to fit a Tetris piece into a hole. There is an adrenaline rush associated with making several correct decisions in a row.
Currently, Papers Please is in beta. As of this article, the version is 0.5.13, and you can only play up to the 9th day. There is also some functionality that isn’t quite finalized, such as detaining people. However, the beta is continuously being revised, and with the game getting a Steam Greenlight, a retail release is on the horizon. I intend to have to full review of Papers Please on Gamer Horizon when that time comes.