Papers, Please Review
The premise of Papers, Please, at least on paper, seems banal, but after a few minutes, you soon realize how compelling it actually is. The game puts you in the role of a man who wins the labor lottery in the fictional communist country of Arstotzka, presumably an Eastern-block power, which has recently reopened its borders. As an immigration official for the MOA (Ministry of Admission), it is your job to review the documentation of each person as they attempt to enter the country to decide if they’re eligible to enter the country.
The game ramps up nicely, starting simply enough as you merely check passports to only admit nationals to the border, checking for accurate information and forgeries, and soon adding additional paperwork, such as work passes, entry forms, ID supplements, and more. Eventually, you unlock the ability to check for discrepancies, such as photos that don’t match the person attempting to enter, incorrect names or birthdates, or even signs of forged forms such as missing or unofficial seals. You also will soon get the ability to search or detain particularly suspicious suspects, all for the glory of Arstotzka.
The game has a unique system in which your choices impact the way the rest of your days play out. Set over approximately the course of a winter month in 1982, the game can theoretically end at any time, depending on your actions and decisions. Each day, you’ll earn a certain amount of money depending on how many potential immigrants you process, but you can also get docked pay for too many mistakes. Additionally, you’ll have various opportunities to earn extra money through bribes and favors, which can be essential to keeping your family alive.
That’s right. Papers, Please has an Oregon-Trail-style mechanic in which you have to manage your expenses (food, heat, medicine) to keep your family alive. You can elect not to spend your money on essentials, but of course, doing so will have consequences. If your family dies, it’s game over (I know one person who had everyone die the second day!).
The game has twenty different endings, and you’ll arrive at one or the other depending on which choices you made throughout the game. Do you accept a certain bribe? Do you let someone cross the border who shouldn’t? I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ve been trying to keep track of the endings I get on youtube, so you can check out some of my walkthrough videos there if you’re curious.
As a result, a game that seems initially like a five- or ten-minute diversion can quickly turn into hours of engrossing play. There’s a perverse powertrip one gets from rejecting or detaining people as they attempt to enter your border, and you can decide if you’ll stick strictly to the rules, or take heart some of the sob stories (“I’ll be killed if I go back to my home country!”) and let them through regardless, adding a real humanity to the game. You’ll also see recurring characters, including one who attempts to enter multiple times over the course of play, adding some humor. And the game does, surprisingly, have quite a bit, from the characters to the names, suggesting a really high level of detail was put into the entire creation process.
One welcome feature of the game is the way it tracks your progress. Papers, Please saves automatically at the start of each new day, and from the main menu you can see a kind of calendar with each day, (complete with branching paths) allowing you to start wherever you’d like. Hit day 15 and got an ending and need to go back? You can start back over at day one if you’d like, or simply go back a day or two and try your luck from there. Made a few bad choices on day 20 and want to try again? No problem. Simply do so and see how you’re suddenly off on a slightly different path.
I really like the subtle storytelling in the game. Rather than any kind of major cutscenes or anything like that, the game instead imparts its story through the newspaper you get at the beginning of each day (the headlines of which can potentially change depending on your choices), along with a few key people you encounter who visit you in your booth. The struggle of powers between the various nations (one day, you may be ordered to search all entrants from a particular country, only to have their diplomats complain and have things change the following day), and battles with secret groups hoping to make your country a better place–or, depending on your view–who are simply dangerous terrorists. Some days will be interrupted by terrorist attacks, and you’re often reminded (especially when you reach certain endings) that as glorious as Arstotzka is, it’s still, presumably, a dictatorship. You might get paid extra for detaining people, but what happens to them once they’re carted away? It’s really a brilliant bit of storytelling that could only work in a game, and it’s one of the things that keeps Papers, Please from being merely a type of puzzle game, but makes it something more.
The simple, retro presentation and music also enhances, rather than detracts, from the experience, especially since the game is set in 1982. The main theme will probably be echoing in your head long after you exit the game, and the sound effects are simple, yet work perfectly to enhance play. The click of the mechanisms, the swish of paper being turned, the satisfying clump of the stamp, not to mention the garbled sounds that pass for voices. I particularly enjoy hearing the echoy “next” or “entry is not guaranteeed” you’d get when you clicked to invite the next person into your booth. That said, the game doesn’t have any “real” voice acting, relying exclusively on text. This means you have to be sure to read what each entrant is saying to confirm whether they’re statements match up with their paperwork. (You can peek at the audio log to check over their statements if you missed anything, though.) You enter into a kind of rhythm of sound that really aids the situation: the whoosh of wind, the grumble of the voice, the click of the stamps, lulling you into a rhythm. Still, the game would probably be a little easier if it had actual voice work, but that’s a minor complaint.
The only real flaw in the game is that it can be monotonous. Either you’re going to quickly be absorbed in the puzzle-like task of checking documents, or you’re not. Although the game does do a really great job of keeping things fresh by adding new limitations/rules, new paperwork, and more, you’re basically doing the same thing on day one as you are toward the end of the month. Additionally, the story mode is pretty scripted, so you’ll generally see the same exact immigrants each time you play a particular day. Additionally, you can’t unlock the endless mode until you complete the story mode (with your job intact). With so many endings, the concept of “complete” can be confusing and frustrating. However, the endless mode is unlocked with a universal code, so a quick internet search can solve this problem if you’re eager to dig into the endless mode before reaching day 31. And it’s definitely worth it: endless mode has three methods of play: timed (process as many travelers in 10 minutes as you can), perfection (play until you make a mistake), or endurance (play until your balance goes negative). Plus, you can decide which difficulty you want (one of four), which really extends the gameplay even further.
I’m still playing Papers, Please to unlock all the endings, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a game I boot up every now and then when I want a quick little diversion, as it’s really a great game to play in small chunks (though you may find your “just one day” has quickly turned into a few hours). For only $10, it’s definitely worth your money, but if you aren’t sure, check out my walkthrough videos or download the beta yourself from the developer’s website.
Glory to Arstotzka!
|Platform: PC (reviewed), Mac|
Release Date: August 8, 2013
Developer: Lucas Pope
Publisher: Lucas Pope
ESRB Rating: NR (not rated)