On a bitterly cold, stoically grey Soviet Russian morning in the fictional province of Arstotzka, a tightly-packed group of immigrants band together, ID cards and work permits in-hand, as they face the wrath of the border checkpoint patrol. There are mothers and fathers crossing to meet long forgotten sons, husbands travelling separately to wives, those in need of medical care, and the few who will do anything to get across. All of the responsibility of checking the documents of these people falls to you.
Papers, Please is a ‘dystopian document thriller’ developed by indie-mastermind Lucas Pope, responsible for hidden gems 6 Degrees of Sabotage and The Republia Times, the latter of which forced you into a journalistic role torn between your allegiances to either the people or the state. Thus, in Papers, Please, Pope has crafted a carefully unravelling narrative that revolves around the core balancing act of allowing a menagerie of foreign citizens into the ‘glorious’ Arstotzka. All major threads are channeled through you, the passport-checking, fingerprint-scanning hardass.
Or are you a kinder soul?
Perhaps when somebody fails to produce appropriately in-date documentation, stating they were in a rush because they need urgent medical care or they’re meeting up with their partner across the border, you decide to let them through? Doing so means repercussions for your family at home should your philanthropic tendencies get the better of you. They may go hungry for the evening, or be without medicine should one of them fall ill in your government-issued ‘Class 8 dwelling’. With the game pulling no punches in regards to neglected family needs leading to permanent death, do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
With 20 different endings all playing out depending on surviving family members, terrorist/state allegiances, and other story elements best discovered yourself, Papers, Please is a phenomenally intricate piece of art. One that instantly asks a very personal question: could you sacrifice members of your own family to allow for others to flourish? Or would you deny entry to those without adequate papers (even going so far as to detain them for extra cash), so that your loved ones can live more comfortably, or at the very least, survive?
These are but a few questions laboured over by the player with each ‘level’. You see, words like ‘game’ and ‘level’ serve to somewhat lessen the experience, as at no point when you’re in the midst of interrogating immigrants and fact-checking do you ever ponder labeling this as just a piece of entertainment. It seems video games are genuinely maturing and evolving to a new standard in recent years, and with works such as Papers, Please breaking through to the wider gaming audience, it can only mean richer experiences in the future.
Mechanically, PP is solid, presenting you with an external view of the never-ending queue of people, as well as a first-person desktop made up of a plethora of your own papers. In addition to your daily-updated regional news leaflet, you have a rulebook consisting of everything you’ll need to highlight should any entrants’ documentation or stories not match up. As you progress, you’ll be given easier access to the different parts of your booth by way of keyboard shortcuts, as well as fingerprint cards, more revealing statistics about the people in front of you, and story-related items that you’re free to handle any way you see fit.
To talk about the story in any real depth would be to spoil one of the most immersive experiences of the year. Everything within PP serves to create an atmosphere of downtrodden, ‘all-hope-is-gone’ dystopia, slowly engorging you within its minimalist menu aesthetics and the industrial clicks n’ clacks of your equipment. Over time, you find yourself pausing to exhale before opening your booth, before clicking the tannoy button that ushers in a very depressed ‘Next!’ soundbite whilst you read through your daily rulebook updates and ponder how many people you need to process so that you and your wife can make it through the night.
There’s something slightly primitive about the art style present throughout the actual gameplay as well, as not only is the game set in 1982, but the pixellated graphics serve to let you focus on the reality of the situation without distracting you through over-animated facial expressions or unrealistic movement. Each border-crosser has with them a set of papers and an audio transcript that you may pull up should you need to. Do you put your head down and do your time, safe in the knowledge that there is an eventual endpoint to your term, or do you do what you can to aid certain elements in the surrounding areas?
Papers, Please draws you in and establishes a world of people relying on you to survive, it cements the level of personable immersion that the more technically-impressive L.A. Noire failed, and all by simply stripping back aesthetics and animation, thereby letting your mind fill in the blanks as your hands and eyes dart across the keys.
Criticisms could be levied at PP for not providing very much hand-holding, even in the earliest stages of the game, yet as the opening titles dictate, you are plucked from obscurity into this role and must perform as your state demands. Therefore, initial fumbling and incurred penalties are part of a learning curve that’s as sharp as Russia’s iconic sickle. There’s no way a game such as Papers, Please is going to be liked by a mass audience, but for the most part, it’s not meant to be. There are sure to be those that will take one look at the screens present or overhear a ‘game about passport control’, and turn away.
Yet, for those who stick with it, what awaits is one hell of an enriching experience that forces you to evaluate your fellow man by way of the disconnect offered through administrative processes. It’s an experience we’ve all been on the receiving end of at some point in our lives, and it’s something you owe it to yourself to check out.
This review is based on a review copy of the Mac OS version of Papers, Please by 3909 LLC, distributed by 3909 LLC.