Papers, Please is a monotonous and tedious experience, yet the game manages to convey one of the medium’s most inviting and impactful stories.
In multiple ways, video games as a medium have really matured and that explains why over the past few years, games that aren’t necessarily fun to play exist. Although this might have been inconceivable some years ago, the most popular digital distribution services are full of games that aren’t that much entertaining. Papers, Please is a title that falls into this category. This is a monotonous and tedious experience, yet the game manages to convey one of the medium’s most inviting stories.
Papers, Please is set in November 1982 in a fictional dystopia known as Arstotzka. After years of being closed, the border has been reopened and it’s your job to admit or deny people into the country. See, you assume the role of an immigration inspector who works at a border checkpoint and you have to check the immigrants’ documents and look for contradictions. Do all the papers look good? Then the person will be admitted into Arstotzka. Are you seeing discrepancies between documents? Then that person won’t be admitted to the country and in some cases, he or she will go to prison for a long time.
The gameplay is one of the game’s best aspects, mainly because it’s really mundane and banal. After all, checking people’s passports and documents is a supposed to be a rote, mechanic and dull process. And that’s the point of this game: seeing the emotional toll that working at a border checkpoint takes. The process is simple enough: you call someone to your booth, they present the requested documents and you check for discrepancies. Your job is to scan those documents, taking into account all the regulations explained in the official rulebook and either accept or deny that person into Arstotzka. Sounds simple enough? Well, most of the times it isn’t.
As days go by, different sets of rules are introduced and this makes the scan process more and more complex. At first, most people need a passport, then a work permit, then a signed document, then a special ticket and so on, making your job harder and harder. Every now and then, a new rule is introduced which means that you need to be extra careful, since there are even more elements to take into account. Whenever you find a discrepancy, you highlight the items that don’t correspond to interrogate the applicant. The interesting part about this process is that you never know how people will react. As a consequence, Papers, Please gives the impression that anything can happen because it often does.
Little by little, you start noticing certain details: some people react aggressively when you reject them, some people show up and leave without saying a word, members of the opposing political party try to blackmail you, the day might be cut short by a terrorist attack and prostitutes offer sexual favors. One of the main objectives is to keep wanted criminals, terrorists and smugglers out of the country and when some of these people show up, you can demand extra information, like fingerprints or a full body search.
Taking care of your family is also important. At the end of each day, you receive a paycheck which determines the well-being of your family. The less mistakes you make during a work day, the more money you’ll have for food, rent, electric bills, medicine and so on. If you don’t take care of members of your family, they can get sick, cold or even die, making your job extremely important since you have to provide for them.
If you make a mistake, you’ll be penalized with a fine, so money will be deduced from your paycheck. Make a few mistakes and you won’t be able to pay for food, medicine and forget about moving to a bigger house or booth. If you don’t have enough money to pay for the aforementioned commodities, members of your family can get sick, cold or they can even die. Also, forget about accepting large sums of money from an unknown person, since you’ll eventually get caught and go to jail for corruption.
But while the gameplay is excessively rote, the message Papers, Please is trying to convey is a powerful one. The game puts you in the shoes of an officer working at a border patrol, so the actions you perform are supposed to be rote and sometimes morally challenging. More importantly, whenever a day goes by and you don’t make a single mistake, you’re drenched with a sense of satisfaction that few games can offer. At the end of a long day, you might be tired, but there’s always that gratification of a job well done.
In terms of content, Papers, Please has a lot to offer. Once you finish the story campaign, you unlock endless mode (where you have to process as many travelers as you can in 10 minutes) perfection (the game’s over after a single penalty) and endurance (you play the game until balance goes negative.) Furthermore, the story mode features 20 different endings and unlocking a handful of those will definitely take you some time.
Papers, Please doesn’t try to be a fun and entertaining game. On the contrary, this is a title that wants you to feel bored after performing the same task for the umpteenth time and interestingly, that’s what makes this experience so powerful and memorable.