Every now and then a game comes flying out of left field that makes people reconsider what video games are. One such example of this is Papers, Please. Here, players take on the role of a border inspector in the fictional totalitarian state of Arstotzka during the Cold War. With that, players are responsible for monitoring anyone trying to come into the country. They will do this by looking at people’s passports, visas, fingerprints, and such and compare them to guidelines set out by the Ministry of Admission. As one can see, this is very different from the vast majority of games out there. It’s also surprisingly engaging as players find themselves getting better and better at doing their job.
Everyday players will head to their border post with a new set of guidelines from the Ministry of Admissions. Things will start off simple enough, but over time there may be more things to check for, and the job will get a lot more nuanced. People visiting from certain countries may not be admitted. On some days, special visas may be required. Does the person standing at the desk match the sex of the person on the passport? Is the issuing city on the passport correct? Is the date on their visa correct? There are all sorts of things to watch out for while when inspecting these people.
Players can’t afford to dilly dally while doing this, either. They get paid by how many people they let into the country correctly. As such, it’s important to process people at a brisk pace if one wants to take care of their family. Going too slow will result in an already meager pay cheque becoming all that much smaller. However, one also needs to make sure that going fast doesn’t lead to mistakes. The Ministry of Admission doesn’t tolerate this and will dock pay when it finds out. They may even arrest you in some cases.
When money becomes tight, the other aspect of Papers, Please‘s gameplay comes starkly into focus: players have a family to take care of. All of that money being earned as a border inspector is paying for things like rent, food, utilities, and medicine. If there isn’t enough money to go around, players need to decide what their family will have to go without. This becomes even more complicated when someone is sick and medicine is needed to keep them alive. Tough choices will have to be made, but don’t dwell on them too long. You still need to get up in the morning and go to work again.
The whole thing can feel a bit grim, but a satisfaction begins to stir inside once one gets the hang of things. Developing an efficient method of going over potential entrants’ paperwork, and getting enough people processed each day to earn enough to live becomes strangely enjoyable. It feels all the more unusual because it is being juxtaposed against the constant reminder that the game takes place in a harsh totalitarian regime. So, players get into this state where they’re having a blast basically doing paperwork while being bombarded with reminders as to how terrible the game’s world is.
While all of this is going on, the game’s visuals underscore the Cold War feel of Papers, Please. It’s a very simple, pixelated look. However, the design of characters, environments, and sparse use of color echoes the Brutalist architecture that was so common during the era. This is further accentuated by how quiet the game is. There is the occasional music. It’s very reminiscent of themes one would expect to hear coming out of the Soviet bloc 40 years ago. Otherwise, it’s just the sound of the player shuffling through papers, stamping passports, and ordering the next person into the booth. Everything feels very harsh and cold.
Still, it is the satisfaction of getting good at being a border inspector that carries people through Paper’s Please. It’s the sort of game a lot of people probably never would have expected to be fun. Yet, here we are. Grasping a system, then figuring out how to work as efficiently as possible within it can be very enjoyable. Even if the country the game takes place in is incredibly harsh, it’s almost as if processing people’s papers extremely well becomes a little oasis of happiness in that otherwise troubled place.
Papers, Please is currently available for Windows, Mac, and Linux via Steam and GOG as well as for the PlayStation Vita.