Papers, Please is a grueling game. The low fi audio barely edges out the true 8 bit visuals, which feel as if they’re 30 years late. The only real gameplay is reading through paperwork looking for minute discrepancies as the laws of my home country get more and more convoluted. If the lady in front of me gets through our borders with a passport that spells her name wrong, I’m the one who has to pay the fine, and my family at home is already cold and starving. On the other hand, if I happen to hit the button to have her arrested and thrown in some ungodly gulag that I’ll never see, there may be another five spot waiting for me at the end of the day. Papers, Please doesn’t make me feel good about myself and though it let me walk away feeling accomplished, it doesn’t even necessarily feel like fun half the time. Why in the blue hell do I love this game so much?
Papers Please doesn’t cast you as a hero of any sort. You’ll play as an ordinary citizen from Arstozka, a fictional country that would have fit in perfect during the USSR’s last dying breaths, as 1982 draws to a close. As the lucky “winner” of the labor lottery, you’ve been assigned to man the border checkpoint and scour through countless passports and entry waivers as the never-ending line of people wait eagerly to cross over.
You’re typical work day is, frankly, quite horrible. After that long miserable walk to work in the freezing cold, you’ll find a new memo on your desk from the powers-that-be, detailing any new immigration rules. Maybe if you’re lucky, your superior will visit you to tell you of a distinguished visitor en route or hand you an award for your adequacy.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with the new regulations, you can call in your first candidate from the seemingly endless line of immigrants either passing through or looking for a new home. Some of them will make small talk, others will berate you for your position, but all eventually have to submit to your authority. They’ll hand over their passport and other paperwork, and you’ll start the strenuous process of weeding them out.
The discrepancies you’ll have to weed out aren’t always obvious. The passport may have the logo backwards, a sure sign of a forgery, or they may be slightly taller than their paperwork says they should be. It’s looking for incredibly small details to make sure these people are safe to enter your homeland. Every error leads to an instant fax from your superiors reprimanding you for your error, and eventually leading to a five dollar fine per mistake. A good payday could be as high as 30 dollars, so losing an 8th of that is incredibly devastating.
At the end of the day, you’ll be allowed to go home and visit your family, and that’s when Papers, Please turns the despair levels up to 11. You’ll have to pay for your rent, but you’ll also have to pay for food and clothing for your family. Rarely will you be financially stable enough to pay for everything without worrying, let alone saving anything for down the road. Failing to provide for your family could result in them getting sick, and if you’d like to keep them alive you’ll have to pay even more for medicine. It’s a horrible feeling heading home after a shift knowing your son is cold and your wife is hungry, and only one of them may make it through the night.
The days never get easier. Just when you’ve finally learned how to read the passports perfectly, you’ll have to have another obligation thrust upon you. Drug runners and terrorists will both try to cross the border, and failure to catch the latter could result in the death of the guards behind you. It’s a grim reality that’s hard to fully express strictly through words.
Although your “guests” are extremely low resolution and offer very little, if any, audible cues to their personality, the story they convey is magnificent. Some will try to bribe you with gifts, one man will continuously try to cross the border with papers that seem to have been made in line waiting, while others will present you with moral quandaries on the spot. What will you do when a man and wife are about to separated due to some archaic paperwork requirement? If a woman slides you a note stating that she’s been sold into the sex trafficking industry, and her kidnapper is right behind her, will you risk the life of your family to save hers?
Sadly, these characters are scripted to show up at certain times in the story; removing a lot of the mystique should you replay the early levels. It wasn’t a matter of being surprised; it was a matter of time before this person managed to show up. It’s a linear game, which isn’t a bad thing, but something that we see so rarely now that it sometimes sticks out in a negative way.
The interface is brilliant in its simplicity, but will never quite feel comfortable. You have a very limited workspace in which you must lay out the passport along with whatever paperwork has been handed to you as you scan through them before applying your red or green stamp. As you progress you’ll get more and more adept in spotting fakes, and eventually be so preoccupied with the difficult things to catch that you end up missing very basic mistakes that you would have caught in the first few rounds, such as the passport having the wrong color or the wrong gender marked.
Papers, Please is not a game that will appeal to everyone. It’s slow, tedious, and extremely stressful without ever showing any sort of light at the end of the tunnel. That’s also what makes it so fantastic. It often felt like I was in my own personal version of the Milgram Experiment, and I exposed parts of myself that I’m not really proud of. I admit it, eventually I broke. I stopped turning people away and started having them arrested to make sure my family was fed. I broke the rules and let suspected terrorists into my home country if they offered a substantial enough bribe. Hell, I had a working relationship with a drug dealer who left a nice little present at home with my family every time I turned a blind eye to his actions. Playing Papers, Please was an amazing trip into a world I had never experienced before, and one that I felt dirty coming out of. I highly recommend that you do the same.
This review is based on a PC copy given to us for review purposes.
Papers, Please is a miserable experience masquerading as a game, but that's really what makes it so special. It's hard to recommend without reservation simply because it can be grueling at times, but those who are willing to trudge through the muck will find a game unlike anything they've ever played.