Papers, Please is a complex game centered around a simple idea. You play a border crossing inspector whose sole job is to make sure nobody who shouldn’t get in to your country gets in. However, indie developer Lucas Pope takes you deep beneath the surface and throws you into the dark, grim, pixelated world that is Arstotzka.
The game is set in a fictional, dystopian, Cold War-esque 1982, at the border of Arstotzka and Kolechia. Tensions are high as diplomacy between the neighboring countries rests on shaky grounds. The border has just been opened up for the first time in six years. It is your job in Papers, Please to follow strict instructions given to you by your superiors each day. If you slip up and let someone in who should not have entered (or keep a viable entrant out of the country) you will be penalized with citations. The more penalties you incur, the more you will be docked from your pay.
And that pay is very important in Papers, Please. You are the sole provider for a family of five throughout the game. If you don’t process enough Arstotzkian entrants throughout the day your family will feel the results of illness, hunger, or even worse.
That’s why the story loves to throw multiple moral hoops for you to jump through. Do you let the man who needs surgery in your country despite insufficient entry materials, or do you send him to his death back home? Do you let the justice system take care of a wanted criminal, or are you willing to let a father pay you to look away as he avenges his daughter? Are you willing to do whatever your country asks of you, or will you help a secret society take down evil in a morally-questionable way? Your decisions have a lasting effect, pulling you towards one of an outstanding twenty separate endings.
I loved the setting created by the developer. The characters you meet in Papers, Please and the actions they take resonate with you, forcing you to empathize with their ordeals. Jurji will always be the lovable oaf that keeps failing over and over again to acquire legal means into your country, just as Sergiu will always mean a friend to protect you if things get too hairy. You would never expect to receive recognition for your efforts, especially if it comes in a plaque for “sufficience.” The music, while limited, instills the dreary notion of living in a Russian ghetto by a communist dictatorship, the perfect companion piece to such a gloomy game.
At first glance it seems like a simple, menial task to look at passports and decide to whether or not to let a potential immigrant, citizen or foreign diplomat in. However, the story mode works you into a groove for the game and only begins to ease you into the gameplay before it starts taking you into the deep end. The progression is what makes it fun.
When you begin there’s not much you have to look out for. All entrants must have a passport, plus you are only allowed to let in native Arstotzkians. Each day it gets more and more complicated to the point that a single person will have you checking a vaccination card, a work permit, an entry permit, a passport and a wanted criminals list, making sure there are no transgressions over five separate pieces of information. The difficulty level eases you in, allowing you to pick up the pace at a speed in tandem with the events of the story.
Papers, Please does its job by making any passport or supplement irregularities hard to spot. Sometimes it’s as easy as a different face from the passport, other times it is one misspelled letter in an issuing city. Failing to catch those easy to miss details can be damn frustrating at times, but that’s just what the game’s developer wants you to feel. You have to keep your emotions in check in order to play the game well. Additionally, you can return to a previous point in the story and fork off into a new path, providing an excellent way to try to do better on a repeat attempt.
Once the story has been completed, you can unlock an Endless Mode. From there, you can choose to play the game through 3 different styles. Timed mode has you process as many travelers as possible within 10 minutes, Endurance Mode has you play until you get a negative balance in points and Perfection Mode gives you points for correct processing and stops when you make just one mistake. If you do well enough, you might be placed on top of the leaderboards. The Endless Mode adds a lot of replay value to a game that provides more than enough gameplay in the main story to justify its $9.99 price tag.
One of my only issues with Papers, Please is that you have to beat the story mode in a certain way in order to unlock the game’s Endless Mode. Forcing the player to play the game on someone else’s terms is unfair to someone who spends the 4-5 hours playing through the story only to have to play through it again. You could probably look up the code to unlock the mode once the game has been released, but that doesn’t negate the fact that you feel punished for not playing the game the right way.
All and all, Papers, Please is such a unique game. You will not find anything like it in AAA games or on the indie market for quite some time. although I expect to see some copycat games pop up over the next few years. That’s how much faith I have in this game; Lucas Pope broke down the genre barriers to create a title that is unrivaled in gaming. It is not strictly a strategy game, nor is it strictly about espionage, political commentary or action. It is described as a dystopian document thriller, but it is more than that. It is complex, but it is simple.
It’s Papers, Please and it’s out right now on Steam, papersplea.se and GOG. Get it as soon as you can!
Glory to Arstotzka!
+ Wonderful variety of characters contribute to choices that means something, resulting in twenty possible endings
+ Unique gameplay opens up a world of future possibilities in gaming
+ Endless mode provides tens of hours of replayability
– Shouldn’t be forced to play a certain way to unlock extra features
(A copy of the game was provided to GameSided for the purpose of this review.)