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Review: Papers, Please

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“I’d love to play a game that lets me step into the shoes of an Eastern European border post officer.” – No-one ever.

Papers, Please‘s elevator pitch is totally ridiculous. You play a border post officer working for the fictional communist state of Arstotzka. Things start out relatively simply; each day you must sit in a booth and attend to people who want to cross the border and enter your country.  Your job consists of examining their documents, so: checking the expiration dates on their passports, matching their entry Visa numbers with their passport numbers, that sort of thing. Riveting stuff right?

Developer: 3909
Publisher: 3909
Platforms: PC
Website: papersplea.se

I’ll say upfront that Papers, Please is not for everybody. But it is something quite special. While most of the gameplay is deliberately tedious, I found the experience to be thought-provoking  and conceptually brilliant in its uniqueness.

While things start out quite simply, with you vetting prospective border crossers by checking their documents, they soon ramp up. As the state becomes more militant, entry requirements become more complex, and you are soon faced with the daunting task of having to check and cross-check three or four different documents per person. This process is made quite stressful by the fact that the amount of money you earn at the end of each day is linked to the number of people you process.

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This money is used to feed and clothe not only yourself, but also your family. Soon, they start becoming sick and you have to buy them medicine to keep them alive, but that’s not going to happen if you’re not processing a decent number of people each day.

You’re supposed to feel compelled to work faster in order to save your beloved family members, but I’m afraid this is the one portion of the game that falls a bit flat. Without doing anything at all to develop any sort of connection between your character and his family members, it’s a little hard to care if they live or die. Despite this, I found myself just going with it; imagining my concern for these characters, I strived to work faster and more efficiently to feed them.

Naturally this had me rushing through applicants, and it wasn’t long before mistakes started creeping through.  First I let through an old woman whose passport had expired. Then it was a bearded man whose passport number did not match his Visa number. Two similar errors later, and my character was arrested for treason, his family left to starve or freeze to death. Pretty bleak stuff.

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So back I went for more. After all, how hard can matching a few documents and numbers really be? With a little time and practice, I found myself processing applicants quickly and accurately. As you progress further into the game, not only do the tasks you have to complete become more demanding, but the story becomes more interesting, with various new characters creeping into the picture.

You are regularly faced with ethical dilemmas, for instance: an old woman arrives at your cubicle with an expired passport, begging to be let across so that she can join her husband of 60 years on the other side. Do you turn her away, or do you allow her to pass through, risking potentially being accused of treason, leaving your family destitute?  Do you bow down and play your role as a cruel, mechanical cog of bureaucracy, or do you risk your life and the lives of your family for the sake of an old couple’s happiness?

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These are the types of questions that Papers, Please makes you face, and although not a lot is done on the screen to build the sort of visually-empowered character relationships that various AAA blockbusters contain, you can quite easily get there by just using a little imagination.

You can buy Papers, Please on Steam or GOG for $9.99.

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  • Ben Myres

    Hey, great review Nick!

    I found your point about the lack of attachment to family members quite accurate. It’s sad that it’s one of the few downfalls of an otherwise excellent game.

    I actually got more attached to the sub stories with the border guards. I was particularly moved by the guard who asked that you let his long time lover through the border post. Why it’s so effective is that the guard would periodically come chat to you at the beginning of every day, developing a growing sense of attachment and fondnes.s

    Then when he asks you to be on the look out for his lover, you spend the next two days hyper aware of each woman that passes the border – checking whether it’s the guard’s lover. When you do let her through -illegally- I saw these pixel figures calling out and running towards each other, finally embracing when they meet. This was interesting, but kind of cliched. However, when that same guard died the next day in a border attack I was heartbroken – I had no one left to chat to in the mornings. Powerful stuff.

    I think Papers, Please is so effective because it achieves most things through its mechanics. It’s not a story about corrupt figures, it’s a story where you’re forced to become corrupt to survive. That’s probably why the family attachment is so insignificant – there is no growing sense of attachment: they are just there and always have been and aren’t affected by the core mechanic -checking passports etc.- of the game, just the resulting meta gameplay.

    In contrast, the border guard and lover story is directly affected by the core mechanic of the game, and this helps achieve a more direct sense of choice and control, I believe. Rather than just a removed points-based system as with the family.

    Rant over :P.

    Thanks for a great read! :)

    • Nic Simmonds

      Thanks Ben! Yea, you’re totally right – it’s those little side stories, that despite the shitty low res textures and poor audio quality, have a way of getting under your skin. Like I said, I found a lot of the game kinda draggy, but the occasional “woaah” moments are awesome. A handful of times I actually sat back in my chair and found myself thinking, “So, that’s a feeling a game has never given me.”

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