Is your life too happy? Are you feeling overwhelmed with joy? Is the constant barrage of life’s meaningless monotony not phasing you one bit? Well then it sounds like you need Papers, Please. Give this new product a try and we promise to not only turn your smile upside down, but to set it ablaze.
Papers, Please stars you, the new immigration inspector of Arstotzka. It is your job read everyone’s immigration documents and disseminate the incorrect or falsified ones from the travelers who know what they are doing, which is very few. You do this by quite literally looking over every single piece of paper and comparing them to your rulebook. What begins as a simple checksum rapidly escalates into an overwhelming amount of papers and rules.
Overwhelming is actually a good term for the entire game. The papers alone are not terribly difficult but you do not have forever to complete them. Time is passing while you are staring at these documents and time is literally money. For every immigrant correctly handled you receive payment, you need that money or you family will not eat. If they do not eat, they die. If they die you lose. So you want to push people through as fast as possible, but if you make a mistake you get no pay for that body. Make enough mistakes and your pay starts getting docked. You must walk a razors edge just to get by; one too many wrong moves and suddenly your sick son is dead.
That edge becomes even more harrowing when opportunities arrive to gain a little extra cash. Some of these activities are not exactly “legal” and you are being watched, so tread lightly. One of the lesser examples being an offer from a guard to detain (yeah you can do that) more people and in return he will share some of his detainment bonus with you. Sometimes these people deserve it, sometimes they could have just made an honest mistake, it is up to you to decide how to handle it.
Papers, Please has the ability to burrow deep into your skin. You can be a great guy and help out people in need but then your family will starve. You can be the soulless worker drone and just watch as the world crumbles around you. Or you can do something about all of it. And by that I mean you stamp those papers, but you stamp them with purpose.
It is surprising how much agency you have in the story with such a limited set of skills. You look at things and you stamp things and everything else is derived from those two procedures. Without spoiling the game I can tell you that this is not just about crossing out inconsistencies. Papers, Please goes to some remarkably dark places and then warms over your heart with the little bits of humanity that shine through the oblique dreadfulness.
The main issue I have with Papers, Please is a perplexing one. The game is a simulation of a boring job, and sometimes it is boring to play. When you are trying to crank through immigrants and you make a mistake, followed by another, and another, it just feels bad. This game accurately captures the despair and stress within its world, and because of that, sometimes becomes the opposite of fun. Border control in Papers, Please reminded me of every job that I have ever hated. Difficult, monotonous, and sometimes costing more money than it was worth. In that regard the game is realistic, but so much so that it is hard to find the drive to face another day.
That discrepancy makes this game hard to rate. The gameplay is not bad, it does exactly what it is supposed to. It is not supposed to be fun but sometimes it dips so far into negative fun it is just easier to quit than keep going. But the game needs to drag you to that dark place for the story to work and the story really is the star in Papers, Please. There are 20 different ending and most of them are wildly different. Each of them show how Papers, Please tested your ethics and humanity. This game will bend you, it will make you uncomfortable, its will shock you, and it might even scare you. While it’s not always a joy to play it will leave an impact on you and that in itself is quite an achievement.