I picked up Papers, Please during the recent Steam summer sale because it was recommended to me by both my brother and cousin, both of whom had played the game for a few hours and ultimately ditched it before its completion but nevertheless had fun with it. I wasn’t totally sure what to expect going in to it. I expected the blocky, retro-style graphics, but I didn’t expect a “story” of sorts. The game isn’t terribly nice to look at – and it makes no apologies for being that way – it is meant to appear bleak and dull. I mean, you’re a border guard stamping passports for Pete’s sake.
Here’s the game in a nutshell. You live in Arstotzka, a country seemingly inspired by, I believe, the Eastern Bloc states from around the time of the cold war. It also takes place in 1982, in case you were interested. Of course, all of the nations and whatnot are completely fictional.
The basic premise of the game is this: you are a border guard forced into your job via a labour lottery. You have a son, a wife, a mother-in-law and an uncle to care for – all of whom are apparently too young/incompetent/lazy to work and provide for themselves. So basically you wake up, read the newspaper headlines (some of which occasionally foreshadow the day’s tasks ahead), and then walk to work. Arriving there, you are given a document outlining any procedural changes you must take in account for the day ahead. The actual “game” presents a view of 3 areas – the top shows the exterior of the border crossing, the bottom left shows your actual booth where the hopeful admitees stand, and the third at the bottom right of your screen is your work surface.
So, someone walks up to your booth, slaps down some papers and then you begin questioning them automatically – what is the purpose of your visit? How long are you staying? You know, the standard stuff. You pick up the papers and move them to your work surface with your mouse. Rather thoughtfully, you are provided a handy rule book that outlines all the details, documents, and conditions people need to have/meet in order to be allowed admittance. These rules, as I touched on just above, may change slightly from day to day keeping the game interesting and challenging. For example, you may arrive to work and find that you are too deny entrance to all citizens of a particular country or that you must search all citizens of a different country. Near the end of the game the attention to detail can be pretty daunting – you may have to juggle vaccination certificates, work forms, access permits, passports, and so on simultaneously, checking each for discrepancies. Sometimes the names don’t match on the forms. Sometimes the person lies to you about how long they’re staying. Sometimes their weight or height doesn’t match up with their documentation. Sometimes their photos don’t match their actual appearance. Sometimes they received the correct vaccination but it has since expired. Sometimes they are trying to cross the border earlier than their documentation allows. And not only does the game throw more and more documents and rules at you as you progress, but it also increases the difficulty of just finding these discrepancies. For example, I didn’t even worry about weights and heights until the last few days of the game, and all of a sudden it became a major part of my routine checks, slowing me down and preventing me from making as much money as I had been earlier on in the game! It’s a good idea to bank money earlier on in the game so you can afford to make mistakes later on without losing your family members to dreadful Arstotzkan living conditions.
Yeah, I know this game may sound pretty dull. Hell, it may even sound like work. But the game does keep it interesting. You make money for every person you deal with in the day, and each day is timed. So, in order to make the most cash, you have to be very quick with how fast you scrutinize the documents. If you make mistakes admitting people -for example admitting someone with an expired passport, you get written up. You can make 2 mistakes per day before being penalized, so you do need to balance the quality and quantity of your work. This money in turn is used to provide for your family members I mentioned earlier – you need to pay rent, heat, and food as a minimum. If you skip out on any of these, your family members can become sick and then you have to try to afford medicine on top of all your other expenses! My son died just a few short days into my playthrough. Poor kid. I’m not exactly sure if there’s a real consequence to be had in your family members all die, but it seems possible. There are 20 different endings! I only reached about 5 of them.
There’s also occasional terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, these events cut your work day short. However, you are given a means to deal with these individuals that pays its own rewards if you’re quick enough. That’s all I’ll say without wanting to spoil too much. These events don’t have to ruin you financially just because the day ended prematurely.
Finally, you occasionally receive visits from groups of people trying to do some political missions of sorts. A rebellion or something. Who knows. They’ll slip you a note to read which tells you to admit a certain person regardless of whether you’re actually “allowed” to, or to give a document to someone coming through later, and so on. Whether you actually do these tasks is completely up to you. I didn’t. I’m a good border guard that WILL NEVER BE TEMPTED WITH REBELLION. GLORY TO ARSTOTZKA! Ahem. Sorry about that. In addition to this weird group that keeps stopping by the border, you can also have superiors approach you and request that you admit certain people even if they should technically be denied admittance. I always forgot these names and ended up denying these people anyways. My superior wasn’t exactly my biggest fan by the end of the game. In all fairness, though, I wasn’t his either.
One shortcoming this game does have is the controls. You are limited to using only your mouse for the first part of the game but you can unlock keyboard shortcuts for repeated tasks by spending your hard-earned cash. These shortcuts can speed you up dramatically, but I sort of found it odd to have to fork out my Arstotzkan cash to buy stuff my character couldn’t actually “use” – I mean, he’s going to stamp a passport regardless of how I tell him to, isn’t he? Do you see what I mean? It just seemed weird to me. What really bothered me though occurred later on in the game. At the risk of a slight spoiler, you eventually need to tell the person you’re denying entrance to the reason for their denial. This means you have to highlight the rule in the rulebook that they’re breaking, as well as the part of their documentation that breaks it. For some reason, there was one rule – I think regarding the validity of the country of origin of the passports – that I never really figured out. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but that really bothered me. In general, though, the entire interface is very awkward. Your workspace is too small near the end of the game to juggle all the documents nicely and you have to keep moving things around to see everything. I didn’t like the whole inspect mode and I found the vaccination forms particularly frustrating from time to time, since I wasn’t totally sure what part of the form I was supposed to highlight with the corresponding rule they were breaking. I think these are all issues you can get past, as I did, but it did bother me a little. Enough to say that the controls of the game are by far its weakest point.
The game isn’t terribly long, either. 5-6 hours perhaps? Unless you’re trying to go for all the endings! You play 30 days within the game and get an evaluation of your performance on day 31. There’s also an endless mode you can play, although I haven’t tried it. If you have a few dollars handy and you like indie games with retro graphics and bad audio, then give it a try. Honestly, it wasn’t bad. I can’t really say it’s a great game, but it’s way more fun than it sounds and I certainly don’t regret playing it for an instant.