Many see the Cold War as an uncertain time when Soviet Russia served as a red elephant in the room that kept eating nudging when America wasn’t looking. The communist state claimed to be a workers’ paradise, where everyone was definitely equal, ruled by those more equal than they were. Funny enough, you can now relive those dark yet interesting days as a worker for the state, screening all those who enter through one of the border checkpoints in the fictional communist state of Arstotzka in this dystopian game known as Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is a rather interesting game made by Lucas Pope wherein due to winning a state-sponsored lottery, you are made into immigration officer who checks documents of everyone coming in through your assigned border checkpoint. You do this to earn money so that you can pay the rent for the apartment where you and your family live.If you want to keep getting money, you better do a good job and not make mistakes, which unfortunately is something you’ll be prone to do.
The first thing you see when you open this game up is the Soviet-style logo slowly marching up the screen with the sinister-sounding music. This is just an introduction into the dark comedy in the gameplay, which you can experience in either story or endless mode, the latter only being accessible with a 5-digit code that you’ll get once you finish the story mode. When you start the story mode, you learn of how you got started with your bureaucratic duty for the glory of Arstotzka. You get a glimpse of the daily newspaper, which becomes a more important part of the game later on, then you walk your way to work. You don’t even get to carpool, which just sucks.
So the basic gist of the gameplay is that everyone who comes through the checkpoint needs to present a valid passport and the appropriate documentation in order to proceed. You are there to check if everything on them is correct and according to the requirements. Once you’ve determined if the the individual can either enter or not, you can stamp the passport with the appropriate entry visa, then return the documents to the owner and call in whoever is next in line. As you proceed through the workday, you encounter various characters and situations (like terrorist attacks and encounters with criminals and spies) along the way in story mode, and you have to manage them all while maintaining your focus on your work.
Something that’s worth noting is how the game makes use of fictional countries in the game and not real ones, which is one of those fine touches that makes this game interesting to play. If real countries had been used, then the game would have been too easy for people who know their geography, history, and social studies. You really need to consult your handbook for the cities of each country, their regions, and their seals. If you do play this game long enough, you may be able to passively memorize these details and you soon become more efficient with your checks.
One particular part of the game that’s interesting is the need to search certain individuals for various reasons like looking for contraband or checking one’s biological gender. The latter is where that nudity option in the game comes in. Yes, there is an option for turning nudity on or off, which is a little funny at first. But then you go through these searches and it soon starts makes you scratch your head. A picture is taken of the individual who had been searched, and you can look at it from front and back view. Either its male or female, they’re portrayed in unflattering ways in this game, and it’s like a commentary on modern security measures that intrude on people’s privacy, which really cements this game’s dystopian theme.
As you progress, you get to unlock some upgrades to your workspace, like how you can press Space to enter Inspect Mode, Tab to pull the entry stamps out, and so on in order to speed up. The only problem is that these upgrades cost you money, so you may have to skip them over if you barely made enough to feed your family. That’s where skipping expenses may come in as you can actually not pay for food or heating for a day, but that does yield a negative effect for your family as they may get sick later on, which will constitute to more expenses, so skimping on those essentials is not recommended. Their status, as well as the special events that you encounter in the game affect how the story ends up, so they actually are important enough to not overlook amidst all the bland checkpoint work you have to do.
This is all about being able to organize your workflow, coming up with an order of procedures that lets you check every necessary detail consistently. This may sound like work, but that’s because it’s exactly what it’s trying to simulate in this game. You also have to remember new parameters given on a particular day, as well as details like looking out for a criminal or someone special to expect a visit from. This goes with various other things that you may encounter that unfolds a plot amidst the daily grind and the need to subsist.
After playing this for a few hours, you may gain a newfound respect for those clerks behind counters who seem to be detached from your plight in trying to break free from bureaucratic red tape. You will soon realize that they have to be detached from the emotional side of things and concentrate on the task at hand in order to not go insane and be able to feed their families. You have various daily expenses, mainly rent, food, and heat. You have to be able to consistently provide for all of them
Then the next thing you’ll realize is just how brilliant this game is. Under its mundanity is complexity that tests your observation skills and capacity for consistency, as well as your patience. It’s way too easy for players of this game to rush it and just stamp “approved” on a passport, thinking that nothing is wrong at all, only to receive an M.O.A. Citation when it turns out that you’ve overlooked one little detail like the expiration date, the issuing city, or even just the seal.
For a game that’s $10 and around 37 megabytes, that is quite impressive. We have seen other indie titles lately that have unique combinations of ideas in narrative and gameplay like Antichamber, Actual Sunlight, and so on. Papers, Please joins that list as a game that is both simple and profound at the same time.
Tested in PC. Final Score: 9/10