The loudspeaker blares in the chilly November air as a line of trenchcoat-clad people huddles near an immigration booth in the fictional world of Arstotzka . One shawl-wrapped woman enters your inspection booth for processing.
"Papers, please", you ask.
They hand you a passport, a work permit, an entry permit, and an ID card. As you examine the passport carefully, you notice that it's out of date. You point this out to the lady, who begs to let her through- she is fleeing from a prostitution ring in Kolechia, Arstotzka's neighboring country.
There's a complication to this choice.
If you let her through, five credits from your income for the day will be deducted , income which is needed to purchase medicine for your dying son. Should you allow her into the country?
Papers, Please allows you as the player to make these decisions. In doing so, it invites you to discover just how much you can game the system while keeping a moral conscience.
The game’s creators dub Papers, Please “a dystopian document thriller”. I know, what could be more enthralling than sorting through papers all day?
But that’s just the thing- the action of the game is so subdued that you aren’t caught up in it. You’re allowed to think and process efficiently.
Your role is to review the papers immigrants hand to you and check for discrepancies. Mechanically, it’s nothing of the AAA Call of Duty sort of entertainment, because the action of stamping, sorting and reviewing papers is not what draws gamers to this experience. (Although you do start to feel competent when you finally hit on the golden mean of desk layouts, where you have the rulebook in one corner perfectly aligned and the daily paper in just the right spot.) It’s the gritty realism that seeps through the pixels of this game and into your brain, tantalizing and torturing you with decisions on how to make sense of what you’re really supposed to do as an Arstotzkan border guard.
Every day ends with the same screen. Your salary is calculated by how many entrants you (correctly) process. You’re given two warnings and after that, penalties, for mistakes you understandably make trying to get as many people processed as you can because it’s your family that’s at stake. Bribes and other gains are factored into your earnings and then you get to choose what to spend your hard-earned (or ill-gained) money on.
Strangely enough, Arstotzkan currency is represented by the American dollar sign- in discord with the U.S.S.R. influences this game draws from.
The game is a casement in duality. The mechanics appear deep, complex, really difficult to master- but they’re not. You think your job is going to be easy because on the first day you have only four or so rules to keep track of. It gets a lot harder. And while it’s easy to “lose” the game, there are plenty of second chances to go around. In fact, infinitely many- your save progress is outlined on a branching chart which allows you to pick which day to resume playing. When you go into debt, or die, and the game ends, your saves don’t disappear, so you can go back in at any point and fix the mistakes you made. It’s like playing God, or Nicholas Cage in Next (eh, close enough).
Papers, Please is a refreshing step sideways in game development that forgoes the stunning visuals and box-office writing of modern video game entertainment for a more detached, contemplative experience. Any self-respecting gamer won’t want to miss it.