Review: Papers, Please

Image credit: Lucas Pope

Papers, Please is one of those rare games that not only manages to take a restricted concept and turn it into an enjoyable experience, but also uses those constraints to turn itself into a genuinely intriguing piece of media.

The premise of the game is fairly simple; after a six-year-long war, the fictional East European country of Arstotzka has re-opened its borders, and you are one of the assigned immigration officials. Every day, a line of weary-faced immigrants come through your booth, and it is your job to inspect the ever-changing sheaves of paperwork for discrepancies. At the end of the day, you’re paid per correct assessment, and go home to your family. A simple, even dull premise—and where Papers, Please really shines through is taking this pared-down gameplay and its minimalist pixel art and using it to effectively weave a believable world of Balkanised, communist dystopias, a political thriller plot, an effective social commentary and a multiple-ending story together.

The game keeps itself from growing too routine by imposing a time limit per game day and using plot elements to justify a constantly shifting plethora of entry permits. This introduces a significant element of skill, as there are a myriad of discrepancies to check for, and you can only spend so long pouring over one set of papers. However, this also makes for a frequent holding of breath after hitting the ‘Entry Permitted’ stamp—it becomes all too familiar for all the photos and birthdates to match, only for the penalty notice printer to clatter and tell you the passport’s issuing city was incorrect. There are times (especially in the later stages of the game as paperwork piles up) when it can become a little overwhelming. The payment mechanic’s strength becomes apparent through the game’s story, giving your moral choices weight.

As your income keeps your family warm and fed, it stands to reason you’d follow the rules to the letter, especially as you pay for any mistake you make. That is, until the game starts to throw the human side of its story at you. A mother looking for her lost son, a wife who faces execution in her home country after her husband was let through, an agent belonging to a rebel movement trying to overthrow the corrupt government; all of these people don’t have the correct papers. Do you let them through and make your family suffer for it? Deny them and deal with the (off-screen) consequences? The game makes no judgement either way; simply giving you a brief news bulletin each morning for some of these stories and leaving others open-ended. Where Papers, Please really shines through, though, is giving these transient characters some humanity. The starkness of the pixelated graphics helps the impression these weary travellers are just some cogs in an uncaring machine—subject to increasingly invasive and suspicious bureaucracy (up to and including the TSA’s favourite, the full-body scanner) to simply cross a border. Despite being set in the late Cold War, it’s an effective critique of international travel post-9/11, and one sympathetic to both travellers and the officials behind the booths.

In conclusion, Papers, Please is a fantastic endorsement not only of indie games, but also games as an art form. It is is far more than the sum of its parts; managing to be fun to play with an intriguing story, while also critiquing modern border checks and nationalism. It is a rare game that manages to so elegantly make the player reflect upon the issues presented within.

Glory to Arstotzka.

Papers, Please is available for PC & Mac.

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