This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but Papers, Please is not a fun game. It is not supposed to be a fun game. Is it good though? Is it worth your time? I reckon yes, but read on and judge for yourselves.
The fictional land of Arstotzka (glory to Arstotzka!) is opening its very high, very armed gates. You, comrade, have pulled a shift at the border patrol to make sure only Arstotzkans get through. It’s simple and graphically quite retro. There’s a line of people milling about on the left, your booth in the centre and the armed guards on the right. That’s the top half of the screen. On the bottom, you’ve got the window of the booth and your desk. It’s a cheery place, with rules, stamps and little else.
A citizen walks up to the booth, maybe says something, puts their passport through and you check it. If it’s valid, you stamp the passport. If not, you reject and hear their curses. At the end of the day, you get money for each person let through and that’s how you keep your family fed, warm and well.
So far, so good. A fairly dull-sounding bureaucracy-em-up. But it changes and grows from this base level into something quite fascinating.
The next day foreigners are allowed in, so you’re not just checking their passports but you’re looking at a map to make sure their passport was correctly issued. Some people might not turn up with passports, some might lay it on a bit thick with the patriotism. Some might pass the check but run through and try to blow something up. Oh.
And the next day it gets worse, you now have to check their ticket. Or their work permit, or actually listen to their waffling as you rush through all the rules, trying to keep everything in order. Did you ask an Arstotzkan for their work permit? Did you need to? How long did that guy say he was staying in Arstotzka (glory to Arstotzka!) and how long did it say on his papers?
Meanwhile your wife is hungry, your mother-in-law’s sick and your son’s both sick and hungry. Tomorrow if you don’t work harder then you won’t be able to afford the heating, either.
Each day brings new plates to juggle, but story elements creep in. There’s the guy with no passport. I laughed out loud when he brought me a really badly-drawn passport and when he had a half-decent fake passport I scrutinised it closer than any other for a defect. I’d been given the power to detain people, and didn’t hesitate to summon The Glorious Secret Police of Arstotzka (glory to Arstotzka!) to take him away. It starts fairly easily too, as each day allows you one slip up before you’re charged for it. You’ll come to dread the noise of your penalty notice being printed out.
And then there was my bad moment. Maybe it was my cold, sick son, maybe it was just the instincts of a full-time bureaucrat…
Let me explain. A woman came in, her passport checked out and she threw me a card for a club, as many women who come through the border do. She also handed me a piece of paper telling me someone was coming who would kill her. When the man turned up, it would have been so simple to reject him. I looked for any reason but I’d had so few people accepted through the gate, I needed the money and I knew I’d never see either of them again. I accepted him into Arstotzka (glory to Arstotzka!). At the end of the day a newspaper article told me about the woman’s murder. I felt shame for what I did. I couldn’t even afford to keep all of my family well with the money I had. I could just about afford for the heating.
The game is full of moments like this in its story mode and even supports multiple endings if you have the emotional stamina and the patience to get through it… or make some spectacular mistakes. The game asks a lot of you, especially if you are a desk-slave by trade already. The game seems like work, but it’s definitely worthy and has several interesting encounters amongst the daily routine. Take part in a movement against the government, or simply help an engineer look for workers from the long line of immigrants desperate to come into the country. Games with hours of bleak grey chest-high walls and “hoo-rah” marines can make the extraordinary amazingly dull and in a world inhabited by dozens of those games… maybe a bleak grey game which capitalises on its extreme mundanity is made more special.
You’ll feel stress as you rifle through people’s paperwork, your rules, maps, and have to make judgement calls all the time. I’d definitely recommend playing it, but if you don’t want the stress or to deal with the bureaucracy in your leisure time, at least watch a Let’s Play video or two. It’s a fascinating experience and one of the stranger topics for a video game.
Reviewed on PC; game was purchased by the reviewer
Have you downloaded the latest issue from GamerZines yet? Check it out here!