Who’d have ever thought that a desk job could be so simultaneously exciting and terrifying? To be perfectly honest, a 9-to-5 (well, 6, in this case) desk job would probably be right at the bottom of my list of things to make games of, way down there with managing a lemonade stand and going on a daily paper route. Papers, Please, however, takes a premise that is unpromising at first glance and manages to come through with one of the most memorable titles of 2013.
Papers, Please is set during the final months of 1984 in the fictional communist Eastern Bloc nation of Arstotzka, with the player acting as a border security official, deciding whom to allow into the country and whom to turn around. The name itself derives from what is probably the most common phrase spoken throughout the entire game–with each potential visitor to Arstotzka that visits your border checkpoint at the town of Grestin, the protagonist will ask for “papers, please.”
Admittedly, I’ve done a relatively poor job of enticing readers to try the game at this point in the review. It’s a lot more interesting than I’ve made it out to be. As each day passes, more rules and regulations are introduced–on your first day on the job, all you really have to check is the potential entrant’s passport expiry date, but as you near the end of your month, applicants will routinely hand over four different documents, all which have to be double, triple, and quadruple-checked before you even think of allowing them into the glorious nation of Arstotzka.
Why must you be so incessantly vigilant? As strange as it sounds for a game about a desk job, Papers, Please is truly one of the most heart-poundingly tense games I’ve ever played. You see, jobs are hard to come by in Arstotzka, and you’re the only member of your extended family who’s managed to land themselves one–by extension, you’re thus the only person who can provide the money for food, rent, heating (it gets cold in eastern Europe!) and medicine for your entire family. Make enough money and you’ll be able to move into a nicer apartment and upgrade your workbench to allow for more efficient document stamping. Each correct stamp you press down on a potential entrant’s passport will earn you 5 credits, each of which goes a long way when it comes to caring for your family. But if you screw up, bad things happen. For the first two mistakes of each day, you’ll be issued a very formal looking pink citation notice, after which you’ll be docked five credits for each following mistake.
This might not sound so threatening, but after a while you’ll find yourself dreading that metallic, grating sound of the pink slip printing from the bottom of your desk. After each potential applicant you send either way, you’ll end up cringing as you wait to hear whether or not you’ve disappointed the glorious nation of Arstotzka. And that’s not even mentioning that it’s totally possible to forget to match up a person’s weight on their ID card with their weight as it’s displayed on the scales, accidentally allowing a suicide bomber into your country’s borders.
To make things even more interesting, every now and then you’ll get an event that will force you to either go with your moral compass and break regulation, or stick by the book and ruin someone’s life. It’s amazing how much emotion you’ll attach to these pixellated, grainy faces. In one example, after I’d approved his entry, a man told me that his wife was following him, and begged me to let her follow him through the border. As soon as he mentioned that I grimaced, knowing that I’d be forced to make a decision with the next person to step into my booth. Sure enough, the man’s wife was missing a necessary document or something (I’ve since forgotten what it was specifically), but after telling her that something was missing she simply pleaded with me, informing me that they’d kill her if she returned to her home country. Heart-wrenching moments like that are not uncommon, as you’re regularly forced to choose between regulation and emotion.
Depending on what decisions you make (will you support the mysterious anti-government cult EZIC, or inform on them to the higher-ups?), the game can pan out any number of ways over the course of the month that you have in the customs office. This is where the inventive (and much appreciated) save system comes into play. At the end of each day, the game will create a new save file, each of which are displayed in a timeline-like flowchart beginning from day one and branching off whenever you make a decision. Say, for example, that on day 10 you have to make a crucial decision between choice A and choice B, and on your first playthrough you go with B. Finish the day and the game will create a save based on that decision that will begin at the start of day 11, but the save at the start of day 10 will still be there for you to replay and choose A. After the second time around, there will be two timelines branching off of the day 10 save file, each representing an important decision. This makes it much more convenient to see all the possible endings to Papers, Please, without becoming disenchanted at having to repeat large sections.
I’m not quite sure how to cleverly say this without it sounding shoehorned in, but the soundtrack in this game is definitely something to write home about it. Or write about on your website, like I’m doing, even though I don’t really like my habit of discussing audio design in the second-to-last paragraph of a review. Every note in the soundtrack to Papers, Please sounds as though it was scrutinised to ensure that it was in exactly the right place to create the perfect oppressive mode that so suits this sort of game. Even the title screen, with its logo imposing on the players as it grows in step with the dominating theme song, provides such a fitting mood that so correctly encapsulates the rest of the experience.
This review is intended to wholeheartedly recommend Papers, Please to anyone who might be on the fence about it. Yes, it is worthy of all the discussion and praise it’s been receiving. It’s about as stressful as a game can get, which is doubly significant when you consider its setting. If I have one major complaint, it’s that the gameplay does get very repetitive very quickly, which makes extended play sessions (after your first long haul) rather difficult. It’s the sort of title that might be better played for half an hour at a time, as it’s not difficult to become disenchanted at repeatedly inspecting documents. Just like a real desk job, I suppose. All in all, Papers, Please is an incredibly unique title and well worth your time, even if you only wind up playing it in fifteen minute chunks.
Select Start Media was provided with a review copy of Papers, Please by Lucas Pope.