I don’t have fun when I play Papers, Please. In fact, I don’t know how anyone who could classify it as fun. I’m not talking about the gameplay mechanic, which is simple bureaucracy: Checking documents for accuracy; making sure the names and numbers match and the documents aren’t forged. Some people might like this, and some people might not.
Personally, I’m a huge fan, and have been since the release of the beta, before the game was even greenlit on Steam. No, what’s not fun about Papers, Please is the state of mind it puts you in. The colors of the game are grays, black, and white. The people you encounter might wear colored shirts, but their faces are gray. The music, the endless communist march, that sounds gray too. And everything you do, every choice you make, is gray.
Bureacracy: The Video Game
The basis of Papers, Please is simple: You’re a newly-minted border checkpoint officer in the fictional nation of Arstotzka. Your job is also simple: Make sure anyone trying to get into the country has the appropriate documents, and follows the appropriate rules. These rules change every day, so you’ll need to be on your toes as you are buried in a sea of ever-changing paperwork. All you need to do is look at the documents presented to you and see if they are correct. If they are, you stamp them approved. Otherwise, you can point out the discrepancies, they get the red stamp of denial. Then you call for the next person in line.
It starts out easily enough, making sure the passport picture matches the face of its owner; make sure the passport has a valid issuing city. It gets much harder, and you can have as many as 5 documents in front of you: A passport, an entry sheet, a vital statistics sheet, a work pass, and a vaccination record. Any of them could have a mistake, and to be honest, your desk is quite small and can’t effectively show more than 3 documents at the same time. This is a design decision that was made on purpose to demonstrate just how lowly, unimportant, and replaceable your position is. For every correct decision you make, you’ll earn 5 credits.
Credits can be used to upgrade your booth, but more importantly, they are used to feed your family and keep them warm. Run low on credits, and you’ll have to make hard decisions to not pay for food or heat for a night. If your family gets sick, you’ll either have to pay even more credits to buy medicine for them or just watch them die. Each day has a time limit, so it is in your best effort to process as many people as possible. However, making mistakes by going to fast or being careless will earn you citations, and your pay can even be docked. The fun of Papers, Please, as it were, is trying to find the right balance between speed and accuracy.
Wait, didn’t I just say Papers, Please really isn’t that fun? Well, its game mechanics might be supremely refreshing, but the main theme of the game is hopelessness. The line of people looking to get through the checkpoint never ends. It’s long, and it snakes, and as each person steps into your booth and you see their face, you start to anthropomorphize each one of them. They become real, with stories. Obviously, many of the people you will see are randomly generated combinations of numbers put together, and their papers might be correct, or not.
However, there are scripted encounters you will have as well. These people are sometimes comedic relief. There’s Jorji, who tries to continuously pass off some of the worst forgeries human eyes have seen. There are those who remark on the plaques you have been awarded by the Arstotzkan Ministry (“Plaque for sufficiency? Why even bother hanging plaque at all?”) Then there are those who are desperate. A man, upon having his papers approved, remarks that his wife is right behind him. She comes in and one of her documents is missing. If you reject her, she will return to her home country which she fled to avoid persecution. She will be killed. If you let her in, you will receive a citation that could cost you money, which could lead to the suffering of your family. What do you do?
Papers, Please simply tells you what the game will penalize you for. Whether or not you get intentionally penalized because you followed some virtuous line of thinking is up to you. You have the freedoms to take whatever actions you choose, but no matter what you choose to do, someone pays a price. You don’t earn a high score in Papers, Please, you get to see a blue “OK” sign over the icon representing your son, letting you know he is healthy.
Telling Your Story, Try To Avoid Typos
Papers, Please has twenty possible endings. Some are just slight variants of each other, but they all hinge on the consequences of decisions you make. Are you sympathetic to a rebel movement? If so, how far will you go for them?
I found though that I didn’t like the fact that I had to replay certain days to get to different story branches. Sometimes the day felt like it was taking too long to get to the scripted events I needed to see. It’s here that the game drags, as it can feel like a day can take just a bit too long to play through, especially if you’ve seen it before.
That’s one of the downsides of Papers, Please. Once you play a day, you’ll know when the scripted events will come, like clockwork. If you’re trying to replay events to make a different decision, the horror and the humanity of the game is lost, reduced to a bunch of binary decisions so you can see the content of the game that you are trying to see. I suppose it’s not so different from other games of its generation, but here it just feels especially sad. I would have liked, at least, a little bit of randomness on the part of when scripted events occur in order to keep me on my toes.
If there’s any other thing I didn’t like about Papers, Please, it’s the booth upgrades you can purchase with credits. To start, the game is 100% mouse controlled, but you can unlock keyboard shortcuts, such as Tab to open the stamp drawer, or Space to enter inspection mode. If you have a quick mouse, or you’ve developed muscle memory, they’re meaningless. I would have liked shortcuts that were more direct, perhaps the ability to quickly hand a document pack to an immigrant without dragging it.
Stamping Your Own Papers
Papers, Please isn’t the usual gaming experience. Its unusual mechanics provide a gateway that leads to a dystopian experience that breeds paranoia and fear in the player. You will not experience “fun” playing this game, but you will find a different kind of catharsis. Once you are done playing and you click the X to return to your desktop, you will find that you will relax. The tension in your shoulders will dissipate. You don’t have to worry about what terrible things the government of Arstotzka might do to the immigration rules.
After a while, you will miss the experience, and you will want to go back. Mechanical complaints about the nature of storytelling in games aside, I recommend that you play this.
Ted played through Papers, Please on a major story branch, and did every possible ending that can be done from that branch. He did not receive a copy of the game for review purposes. While he is not disclosing what the major story branch is for spoiler purposes, he will and can disclose that information privately.
+ Actually novel game mechanic
+ Difficulty ramps up at a perfect pace
+ Organic choices that matter
-Replaying days simply feels like a chore
-Booth upgrades could have been more meaningful
-Gameplay possibly isn’t for everyone
Available on: PC, Mac
Version Reviewed: PC