Papers, Please Review: Glory to Arstotzka
When you think of unexplored genres that would make for interesting games, I don’t think that customs officer simulation would be one of them. Yet, Papers, Please is one of more interesting games that I’ve played in a while… Even if it does seem at time like a desk organization simulator too.
In Papers, Please, you play a citizen of the quite clearly communist country of Arstotzka who gets a job at as a border guard through the country’s labour lottery. As your job requires you to move, you must earn money to pay the rent in your Class 8 dwelling, heat your apartment and feed your family.
At first, your job checking documents at the border seems simple enough. Has their passport expired? Is it from a valid issuing city? Do they look like the name in the picture? If it all looks good, stamp their passport for entry and let them through.
As the game goes on, the challenge increases. Every day, the rules for entry into the glorious nation of Arstotzka change. This generally means that you’ll have even more documents cluttering your already small work space. What starts as just a passport and a rules/reference book quickly adds entry permits, work passes, ID supplements, wanted criminals lists and more.
And Papers, Please doesn’t make it easy on you. Sometimes the most subtle of things will trip you up and earn you a citation from the Ministry of Admission. Your first two citations are warnings. After that, they start docking pay. It’s bad enough that you’re only paid $5 for each correctly admitted or denied person barely helps you make ends meet. Making mistakes or going slowly through a person’s documents can leave your family in rough shape as you have to decide whether to skip food, heat and/or medicine if you can’t afford them.
I’m not sure which genre you would apply to Papers, Please. The closest of the more traditional genres would be puzzle. You’re comparing documents to ensure that they match while ensuring that an ever-changing and ever-growing rule set is adhered to. It seems a bit like a puzzle game but it’s really quite unlike any game I’ve ever played before.
While saying “papers, please” to everyone coming up to your checkpoint (and saying to yourself “That’s the name of the game! OMG!”), there is a story going on around you.
The glorious nation of Arstotzka might be a popular destination for foreigners but that doesn’t mean that people are happy with Arstotzka. As you go through the game, you’ll run into a few different factions. There’s the Arstotzkan government who would quite like you to detain any suspicious characters. There are the underground rebel faction who are counting on you to help them with their cause. And there are terrorists (mostly those damned Kolchekans) who sneak through your checkpoint to cause havoc unless you’re on the ball and stop them.
Beyond the major players are the stories of the people you meet. There’s the eccentric elderly gentleman who tries day after day to get entry only to run fall afoul of a new rule. Wives arrive to reunite with their families but don’t have to proper documentation. Women beg you to stop the pimp behind her in line from entering the country. There are sob stories a plenty.
Conversely, you get bribes from people wanting you to go beyond the ordinary call of your job. A guard wants you to abuse your power to detain more people so he can make more money and give you a cut for helping him. A couple of men want to use you as a job recruiting service. Folks pay you to look the other way.
The story is perhaps most interesting in that it forces you to balance the needs of your family against the needs of every other person and cause that crosses your path. It would be easy to let every crying wife through the border without a second thought but that takes food out of your family’s mouths and keeps the heat off on a cold winter night. Papers, Please basically asks you to weigh your morals against your family. While most games with a moral choice system don’t really have much in the way of tangible in-game consequences, Papers, Please certainly does.
That moral choice aspect builds into the branching story of the game. There are a reported 20 different endings to the game which vary based on the decisions that you make during gameplay. Fortunately, finding the different endings isn’t a 30-day grind since the game autosaves each day separately which makes it easy for you to go back to make a different decision since the major story points happen on the same day of every playthrough.
One drawback that critics are frequently citing about the story is that while most of the people coming through your checkpoint are randomly generated, the story elements happen at fixed points in time. I really don’t understand how that’s an issue. For the story to progress, certain events need to occur. For the story to work as well as it does (and it does work well), it needs those set events to be properly paced. I really don’t have an issue with certain important people and events occurring at a predetermined point in time.
While I really liked Papers, Please, I’m not sure I would go so far as to say that I enjoyed it. It’s the same sort of interesting, well done but not fun as Spec Ops: The Line was. It’s a dark game that touches on some depressing themes of life in socialist dictatorships.
I don’t think that this game will be for everyone as a result of the political undertones of the game and the fact that the main gameplay mechanic of comparing documents probably appeals to a relatively limited group of gamers. As such, the score reflects my enjoyment of the game rather than what I think the average gamer would think.
Papers, Please was reviewed on Windows PC but is also available for Mac. Your impressions of the game may differ based on system specs, mouse speed and if you enjoy living in a socialist dictatorship (A real one. America is a capitalist democracy, Tea Party.).