Papers, Please is not a game that I would describe as fun. It was actually a fairly miserable experience filled with sadness and regret. More than once I questioned my reasons for playing. This was not because it is a bad game in any way, quite to the contrary it is wonderful to see a title that can intentionally evoke these deeper emotions from the player. This is not your typical video game, it is much better than that.
The game takes place in a fictional Eastern Bloc country called Arstotzka which has just won a 6 year war against the neighboring country of Kolechia. Spoils of the war include the city of Grestin, now part of Arstotzka. This is where you come in. Congratulations on winning the October Labor Lottery! You and your family have been assigned Class 8, state run housing. From here you will begin your new life as an Immigration Inspector. You will spend all day scrutinizing documents and either allowing, or denying individuals access to your country. At first, the process is fairly easy as you have very few criteria for allowing lawful entrance. For example, only people with a passport from Arstotzka are allowed in on your first day.
Each morning more rules are added and you will have to start paying very close attention to every minor detail. Before long you will be checking the expiration dates, spelling, fingerprints and water marks on several different documents at once. It is easy to get tunnel vision and start making very big, very obvious mistakes. At one point I got so caught up in the minutia of the paperwork, I didn’t even notice the person before me looked nothing like the photo on on their passport. I was quite mad at myself over that one, not because I made a mistake however. I could have processed the person much faster. It is not enough to just process people through your checkpoint. You must process as many people as you can in the time allotted as that is how you get paid.
You earn $5 for each person correctly processed. If you mistakenly allow or deny someone entry then you will not be paid for that individual, you will instead receive a citation. Your first two citations of the day are warnings, after that each will deduct from your pay. At the end of the day, you will be shown your total earnings and expenses which include rent, heat and food. Work quickly enough during the day and you can have more earnings than expenses which builds up some savings. This is not always possible as sometimes your day can be cut short due to an outside event, such as an attack by Kolechian terrorists. When this happens you may need to take funds from savings to cover expenses. If your total balance at the end of any day is ever negative you will be jailed for delinquency and the game will be over.
To succeed at this game it is not enough to simply process papers and manage your budget efficiently. You are also responsible for a family. Your wife, son, uncle and mother-in-law all live with, and depend on you. The statuses of your family members are shown at the end of the day alongside your budget. If you try to save funds by cutting heat or food for a day your family becomes cold or hungry. They may also get sick which adds medicine to your list of expenses. Some family members may even die during the course of the game. It is the policy of Arstotzkas’ Ministry of Labor to promote the growth of the nation, meaning a man who cannot keep his family alive does not deserve his job.
The brilliance of Papers, Please really comes through in the story. You can be more than just a paper pushing cog turning endlessly in a bureaucratic wheel. Many of the people you will see are randomly generated, however there are specific individuals and events that are scripted. It is at these times when you are expected to make moral decisions that may or may not impact the rest of the game. For example, a man whose paperwork is in perfect order mentions that his wife is behind him in line. When you see the wife, it is clear that she does not have the correct documents. You could show compassion and allow her entrance, but you will be given a citation for not doing your job. This, in turn, deducts money from your earnings and takes food, heat or medicine away from your family. If instead you jingoistically do your duty, then this person before you will be put to death in their own country. The choice is yours, just don’t take too long thinking about it because time is money. Of course, you could simply say, “It’s just a game” and not really worry about it, however that would miss the entire point of playing.
Given the importance of your position, it is inevitable that at some point you will be offered bribes. The bribery could come from another government official, a drug smuggler or even members of a subversive foreign movement wanting to overthrow the Arstotzkian government. It is your decision to cross that rubicon or not. Having those extra funds could be enough to keep your very sick son alive, it could also attract negative attention from the Ministry of Income. The choices you make determine the outcome of the game. While there are a total of 20 different endings, most of them involve being sent to prison and possibly executed. After several playthroughs you may eventually get the “good” ending.
This one not only keeps you alive and free, it also unlocks the Endless Mode. This mode has no scripted events, you simply process as many procedurally generated people as you can while earning, or losing, points .There are three variations of play, Timed, Perfection and Endurance. Timed gives you a total of 10 minutes to earn as many points as you can. Perfection let’s you keep playing until you make your first mistake. Endurance is similar to Perfection but simply deducts a huge amount of points for each error. You can keep playing as long as your point count remains a positive number.
During the course of the game, you will also get opportunities to upgrade your housing or your checkpoint booth. Housing upgrades will raise your rent, but could lower other costs such as heating. The booth upgrades are intended to make you more efficient in your work. For example, the first adds a very useful hotkey for one of your regular tasks. Personally, I found that improving my booth had the most benefits for the cost. Ultimately, neither set of upgrades are really necessary. The artwork for the game is fairly simple. Since you will mostly be looking at documents this art style is sufficient. It really only becomes a problem when you have to compare the photo on a passport with the person standing in your booth. There is an electronic tool in the game that can tell you definitively if the images match so this is not game breaking.
Is It Worth Your Money?
Developer Lucas Pope has brought something very unique and original with Papers, Please. If you don’t approach it with the right expectations then you will be severely underwhelmed. I’ll admit that this is how I felt for about the first 30 minutes. Then, suddenly, something clicked and I really got what the game is all about. From that point, I couldn’t stop playing. I kept telling myself “Just get through one more day and then I’ll stop.” So if you are willing to try something different that maybe outside your comfort zone, Papers, Please is perfect.