Seal fates and determine the destiny of a nation… from the most unlikely place imaginable.
PC Release: August 8, 2013
By Ian Coppock
Some of the video games I respect the most turned a mundane setting into something powerful. Dear Esther did this by setting a journey for closure on an abandoned island, and Gone Home created a tear-jerking quest for identity simply by having you… well… go home. Papers, Please is no less extraordinary. It’s not a perfect game, nor the greatest game ever, but for a toll booth simulator, it’s pretty damn unbelievable.
No, this is not one of my crappy jokes. In Papers, Please, you are cast as an immigration inspector working a checkpoint for an oppressive government. It’s up to you to serve the glorious nation of Arstotzka by inspecting people’s documents and giving them a yay or nay.
Don’t worry; there’s quite a bit more to the game than that. But it all stems from that very premise.
In Papers, you’re given 5-10 minutes for processing as many people as possible. Using your suite of documents, you have to check foreigners’ passports for discrepancies and either send them away or let them into Arstotzka. If you’re quick and make few mistakes, you’ll have enough credits by day’s end to feed your family and pay the bills.
If you’re wondering how the hell this is supposed to be fun, bear with me a bit longer. Few jobs seem more ho-hum than that of a toll booth agent, but forces outside your cubicle change the game’s parameters almost daily. War, terrorist attacks, diseases and crises add additional challenges to the game. Citizens from Country A might be alright, but terrorists from Country B blew up a bus yesterday, so hell if you’re going to let them in!
Being in charge of who comes into the country will thrust you into moral dilemmas. Papers punishes you for screwing up and letting the wrong persons in (or keeping the right persons out) by chipping away at your daily income, leaving you with less money.
I immediately puffed out my chest and resolved to make no mistakes in order to keep my family safe, until a political refugee fleeing certain death in her home country came to my booth without a passport. That is a tough pill to swallow; save a life at the expense of your reputation with the higher-ups, or pocket some cash for your family while sending an innocent person home to die. That is but a taste of what makes Papers, Please far more than a mundane toll booth simulator.
Game creator Lucas Pope added other challenges to Papers, Please. At one point I was face-to-face with a notorious serial killer who had all the right papers and could legally enter Arstotzka. Another time, a prostitute who was seeking a better life at the expense of following the law. You’ll be faced with at least one or two of these challenges in each round of Papers, Please, and none of them are cut-and-dry.
At the same time, a larger story envelops your little job at the toll booth. As Arstotzka’s communist leaders become more extreme, a secretive order of freedom fighters returns home after a long exile. You can play a dangerous game, lying to the authorities or the order or both and getting away free (or not) in one of TWENTY possible endings. Will you remain true to the law and identify the rebel scum, or assist the order in their fight against tyranny? Neither choice is easy nor without consequences.
You’ll face similar dilemmas dealing with people smugglers, undercover agents, diplomats and others. Who knew a toll booth job could be so damn complicated?!
The gameplay in this game grows more complex as time goes on. As conditions inside and outside Arstotzka grow more chaotic, more documents, passes and cards are dumped onto the growing kindling pile you need to sort through. I managed to get checking passports down like a boss, but things got harder when work permits, medical cards, entry slips, visas and other artifacts accumulated. Papers, Please adds these items at a rate that allows for acclimation, but it is a challenging game.
In addition to checking documents, you’ll be expected to fulfill other duties at the booth, like searching suspicious individuals and even firing tranquilizer darts at nearby terrorists.
Papers, Please has a few gameplay issues that Lucas Pope might consider looking into, namely that the bonus abilities you can buy are not really bonus abilities so much as keyboard shortcuts that might shave a second or two off of dragging with the mouse.
Additionally, I understand that you need a way to punish me for letting in the wrong people, but an arbitrary write-up that basically says “you f***ed up” takes away from the feeling that I’m the real toll booth manager in this scenario. Maybe the person could commit a crime and I’d get written up more organically? I don’t know.
The visuals of Papers, Please are retro for, I suspect, a few reasons. They’re obviously a loving throwback to older games, but they help reinforce the game’s sense of dread and oppression. Between the tired, ugly people, the deadening amount of gray, and the antiquity of your tools and methods, the artwork adds some serious gravity to the game.
This is expanded upon in the game’s sound design. The music is a steady, crushing anthem of deep horns and a few rippling strings, along with an ever-accelerating drumbeat hastening you to dispatch justice or mercy. The people don’t actually talk; they utter weird grunting sounds that, strangely, fit the game all the more. The music only plays during cutscenes and menus; all that accompanies you otherwise is the sound of bitter wind.
Papers, Please may still sound boring to you, but at the least you have to respect Lucas Pope’s transformation and expansion of a mundane concept. I love this game, for this reason and for its simple, elegant design. Papers, Please is, like many good things, available on Steam. Ten bucks to embark upon what might be the most surprising video game adventure you’ve had in a while. It certainly was for me.
Thanks for reading! Thursday is my birthday, so I’m reviewing one of my very favorite games. For some reason, I haven’t gotten around to it yet. I guess my birthday’s as good a time as any.
You can buy Papers, Please here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.