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I have so many documents to review in my small booth today. Maps, lists, document guides, daily news reports, photo galleries. It can feel pretty cramped in here. Maybe a sip of coffee will help me relax and get on with it. Slurp. Mmm.
OK, here's the first victim of the day. You'd think someone who waited all night at the border would have noticed his passport number doesn't match his entry visa number! Idiot. Lemme warm up the ol' "DENY" stamp. KA-THUNK! Next! Slurrrrp.
Hmm. Your documents are all in order, ma'am. You're visiting Arstotzkan for... two weeks, is it? No problem. KA-THUNK! Glory to Arstotzkan! Next! Slurrrp.
It's easy to fall into a grind here at the Arstotzkan border. There's almost a meditative quality to protecting our borders from the endless procession of people and documents that come through every day. You sometimes forget that these people have lives... until they try to slip revolutionary propaganda through the window slip. Or an occasional wimp cries as he's detained for fraudulent documents. Or some jerk blows himself up right next to my booth. What, does he expect me to change the way of the world from within this tiny booth?
Sorry, I can't worry about that. I have too many people to process if I expect to get paid, if I expect to feed my family. It's a lot to think about. Thank goodness I get a moment between visitors for a sip of coffee. Slurrp.
Papers, Please is the latest in a growing wave of "serious" games that aren't educational, per se, but where the "fun factor" isn't immediately evident. As a border control guard in a fictional Eastern European country, your actions are mostly confined to shuffling papers and confirming or denying someone's entry into Arstotzkan. Often, that means finding fake and forged documents, which all of those charts and lists in your office will help you verify.
Check a person's passport to confirm country names, diplomatic seals, and code numbers. Interrogate the person when things don't match up. Make a decision, then let the next person up to the window and repeat.
A plot centered on a political uprising quickly emerges on top of this daily grind. You get to decide whether you cast off your allegiances and join the resistance, helping "bad" guys and risking your job, or be a good little booth supervisor and reject the winds of change (which brings its own consequences).
If this were a real country, the game wouldn't make for great tourist publicity. Papers, Please looks intentionally unrefined, using pixelated designs, sullen faces, and a cold, harsh color palette to present its sad scene. Passport holders have little cheery to say; when they're not pleading to get in, they're offering bribes, issuing propaganda, or delivering bombs.
Yet the most terrifying part about Papers, Please is the sheer satisfaction to be found in its gameplay loop. If you're sociopathic enough, you can ignore the political statements and the virtual lives that hang above your “DENY” stamp, to discover some tight, puzzle-based play. The act of reviewing and cross-referencing a slew of documents sounds dull, but it taps into a hide-and-seek, "Where's Waldo"-type reflex.
The variables—passport numbers, "most wanted" photo galleries, authorization stamp designs—don't just change as the game progresses, but also with each person who approaches your desk, as different visitors require different documents and raise different red flags. That man has an ID card? Check his height. That woman's from Kolechia? Activate the strip search. You're always adjusting, always on high alert.
Once you're hooked, the soul-crushing stuff kicks in. You may start your new border-control career thinking of it as an innocent, puzzle-filled abstraction, but to succeed, you must buy into the meta-narrative: that you have won a lottery to get this job. You need it, and going too slowly or making too many mistakes will cost you—and your family—greatly.
A day in Papers, Please lasts for only six minutes of real time, and an extra rule typically gets added as the calendar turns. At day's end, you're given a report: The more visitors you correctly admit or reject, the more cash you pull in; the more errors you make or fraudulent passports you admit, the more fines you pay.
You'll need that money to pay for rent, food, and heat for your family of four. On a slow or error-filled day, you'll have to nix enough budget items to continue. No heat tonight; no food tomorrow. Saving money will cost you, as a suffering family will only get sick and require expensive medicine.
Budget woes will probably pile up in your first playthrough, so you'll have to find ways to play faster and smarter. The low-res screen doesn't leave much room for things like your giant tome of regulations. Maybe you write them out and put them on your in-game computer desk. Soon, you'll be memorizing city names rather than looking them up and getting better at noticing false bits of data immediately.
So much better, in fact, that you'll race to slap that “DENY” on a person's visa—or worse, rush to detain them in prison and pocket a small bribe from a prison guard. Before you know it, you're callous enough to shout something awful or demeaning at your screen, “You're outtttta here!” like a baseball ump.
I only needed a few hours to reach an out-of-body experience where I watched myself fall heartlessly into the gameplay, into celebrating my correct dismissals and ignoring the slowly building, strangely gripping story of Eastern European repression. The game is perfectly amenable to players coming and going from that awareness, dropping in just enough reminders of both its game-like giddiness and somber reflection to avoid coming off as heavy-handed. In fact, the keen, interactive treatment of repressive regimes, combined with smoothly ramping play, makes this a fine point of entry into the serious games genre for someone who might otherwise scoff.
Some of the most truly jarring moments in Papers Please come when the game's denizens condemn you—you, the virtual border agent, and you, the actual human—as a scumbag. In one playthrough, I received a plaque from a military official thanking me for my service. A denied applicant looked at it on his way out, and he didn't mince words with his brief exit: “You are like this plaque. Cheap shit.”
The Other Side
I was recently on the other side of the Papers, Please scenario in real life, waiting after an international flight at a particularly militaristic country's customs desk. This wasn't like the DMV; with one wrong stamp, you could be forced to buy a flight home immediately, or worse. The stakes lent a tense, no-nonsense edge to the proceedings. Other travelers would walk up, stare silently ahead—no talking, no smiling, no explanations—and wait for the agent to look through every paper before a mechanical stamp's KA-THUNK broke the silence.
As a free-wheelin' American, I felt there was no need for the customs agents to put travelers through such a dispiriting, dehumanizing process in the name of security. But experiencing things from the other side, through Papers, Please, I quickly realized there wasn't much I could do to change things as a lowly peasant worker in this weird place. Any concerns about projecting a friendlier face gave way to the tasks, the grind, the game.
After racing through a traveler's files, preoccupied with the pressures of the job and paying for my virtual family, I had a forced, four-second gap while one walked away and another approached. This was my opportunity to really stop and think about my role in the act of processing people like so much cattle.
Instead, I just reached for my coffee, every time. Slurp.
- The core mechanic of seeking and comparing document details does a good job of changing and ramping up over time
- The game delivers an intense emotional reaction without smacking players over the head with political statements
- Well-made checkpoint system makes finding all 20 endings easier for completionist players
- The grindy, humdrum nature of the tasks can wear thin (even though that's kind of the point)
- The graphics can't really be called "pretty," but then, that fits the subject matter
VERDICT: Buy, study, and share this game as an example of video games as true art.
Papers, Please is a simulation video game that puts students in the role of an immigration officer for the fictional communist nation of Arstotska. Players decide who gets in and who stays out. To approve or deny someone, players check an ever-increasing number of documents. Each day adds new things to be aware of, and it's a tough -- but interesting -- tightrope to walk. In order to make the right choice and be efficient, players need to be slow; to make the most money, they need to be fast. How does the pain of this balance increase when human lives hang in the balance?
The plot unfolds around developing political events, terrorist activity (including attacks), an anti-government radical group, and mini-stories involving potential immigrants or visitors. Players encounter many ethical quandaries that force can’t-do-good-by-everyone decisions, and upsetting people is unavoidable. It's a very simple but unique game: part simulation, part puzzle, part adventure, part commentary. For some, obsessively fact-checking and poring over virtual documents will be particularly engaging, but for others, the grind of each day may prove too difficult.Continue readingShow less