Review: Papers, Please brings your Eastern Bloc border-crossing nightmares to life
At a Glance
I've done terrible things.
I generally think of myself as a good person. Or at least, the type of person someone might look at and say, “Yeah, he's an okay guy.”
Today I helped someone smuggle drugs into my glorious homeland. Today I aided a known fugitive. Today I made barely enough to feed my struggling family, and I had to turn off the heat for the night—in the middle of winter.
Today I played Papers, Please, an indie game by Lucas Pope that places you in the role of a border crossing official in a vaguely Eastern Bloc-esque country. It's one of the bleakest things I've ever played.
It's also probably the best game released so far in 2013. Hell, it's one of my favorite games of all time.
Where is your passport?
The concept is simple, if way outside the scope of most games: you've “won the lottery” and have been randomly selected to serve as a border crossing agent for the exalted nation of Arstotzka, inspecting people's papers on their way into the country. At first your instructions are simple: only native Arstotzkans are allowed entry, and they must have a passport.
So after waiting in line all day to meet with you, citizens file in one at a time. You look at their passport, compare it with the rules, and make your decision: Arstotzkan passports get marked with the big, green “Accepted” stamp; others get the red “Denied.” Use your mouse to align the passport with the proper stamp and mark it with a satisfying ker-chunk.
On the second day you come back to work and find a memo on your desk from the Ministry of Admission. “From today, foreigners with a valid passport are permitted to enter.” Great! Now you can just let everyone in!
Not so fast. You can't just trust everyone like that! You're a border official, and the proper protocols must be followed. Make sure the picture on their passport matches their actual appearance, and that the passport hasn't already expired. Check the map in your rulebook to ensure the city that “issued the passport” is actually inside the country of origin.
Each time you mess up, you're given a citation; for example, “Entrant birthdate does not match.” The first two citations each day are a warning. Three, and the Ministry starts docking your pay, making it harder for you to pay rent and provide food and heat for your family.
There are 31 days in the game, and nearly every one adds a new complexity to your job. Soon you'll be dealing with a whole sheaf of documents, each of which needs to be checked to ensure it matches the others before you grant someone entry. It gets easier to miss a small discrepancy, easier to lose large portions of your already laughable wage, and progressively harder to keep your family alive.
The act of playing Papers, Please feels satisfying, in part because everything is controlled manually. You have to click and drag documents around with the mouse, trying to keep things organized on a desk that always seems just a little too small (on purpose). Spot a discrepancy and you'll have to highlight the two pieces of conflicting information, and then click again to actually interrogate the person. Accepting or denying an application requires that you pull out your stamp rack, align the passport underneath, and then stamp the appropriate label with a satisfying clunk. Then you have to hand all the documents back, one at a time.
If it sounds more like work than a “game” in the traditional sense, well, you're not wrong. It's all so time-consuming, so tedious, so stressful. Get close to the end of the day and the clock starts blinking, warning you that the shift is almost over. “That's helpful,” you think—until you realize it's made you more aware of how long each action takes. You start to become careless in your haste, making foolish mistakes and racking up citations.
And that's the brilliance of Papers, Please. By putting you on the clock and making the work so obtuse, Pope is able to induce real stress with challenges that should be utterly mundane, effectively simulating in some small way what it might feel like to work this job for a tyrannical state in real life.
I never forgot that I was playing a video game, but Papers, Please still made me care for a fictional family. Tasked only with providing for my relatives, I went to my menial job each day and did some terrible things. I accepted bribes, I ran drugs, and at the end of each day I went home secure in the knowledge that I made sacrifices to keep my family alive.
Ten dollars for your dignity
The challenge of running a border crossing station is satisfying enough, but it's really only the framework for a bleak and deeply disturbing story. As with his last game, Republia Times, where you run a propagandist newspaper, Pope has created a story that aptly portrays the boring, everyday nature of “evil.” There are no easy choices in Papers, Please.
At one point, for example, one of the border guards will come to you with a proposition. “I'm paid a bonus whenever you detain someone,” he says, “and it helps me feed my family. Tell you what—detain more people, and I'll cut you in on some of that money.”
Early in the game the “Detain” option is something you might reserve for only the most cagey individuals. After all, you're a moral person. No need to punish people unfairly.
Your family is starving, though. You need the money badly. That “Detain” button starts to look mighty appealing. An old woman comes to your window. She says she needs to get into the country to see her son, but her passport is forged. The detain button appears.
Do you throw her in jail so your son can eat that night?
Or a man comes up to your window. He's immigrating to Arstotzka. His papers look good so you let him through, and as he leaves he tells you his wife is right behind him. She comes up to your window. She's missing a crucial document. She begs you to let her in, but you've already made multiple mistakes that day and your pay will be docked for the error.
Do you listen to her shrill pleas and admit her, or bar her from entry so your wife doesn't freeze to death?
“I'm just following orders,” you mumble to yourself as you deny her application. She cries. She curses you. You're a monster.
The act of playing Papers, Please is a constant struggle to stick to your morals, even when everyone you love is held hostage. Even worse, I got a perverse pleasure from serving as a cog in this nightmarish, bureaucratic machine.
I felt an absurd sense of accomplishment improving my investigation skills. I'd spot a discrepancy in someone's papers—perhaps the number on their passport was off from the number on their entry permit by one digit. I'd smash down that big, red "Denied" stamp on their passport and I'd feel a flash of success. I'd ruined some poor immigrant's hopes at a better life, and all I could feel was pride that my pay wouldn't get docked.
It's horrifying. It's the scariest Skinner box simulation I've ever played. It's also genius.
If this review seems vague, it's because the appeal of Papers, Please is predicated on going in cold—making the wrong decisions without knowing you are making the wrong decisions.
Don't let my vagueness dissuade you. I've played games my entire life—a lot of games—and Papers, Please is easily one of the best. There are very few games I can point to that taught me something about myself and the world I live in, and I'm still a bit in awe of how well Papers, Please works.
Everything, from the droning music to the overall aesthetic to the mechanics, supports the telling of a subtle but realistic and powerful story. The whole package is exemplary.
Glory to Papers, Please.