Papers Please is a highly stylized take on the international relations of a military state that opens its borders for the first time in six years. You play as a government inspector tasked with checking the passports of would-be visitors trying to entry your country. Closely modeled after the real-life Soviet Union, your home country of Arstotzka is very strict on who you do or do not let through their borders, so you must closely inspect each and every passport to determine which are real and which are fake. With a hauntingly somber musical score and a retro propaganda art style, this is an excellent game if you like meticulously picking out minute details and overbearing authoritarian governments.
After a simple introduction to the wonders of border control, Papers Please quickly devolves into complex situations that revolve around duty, family, and rebellion.
At the heart of Papers Please is the very simple mechanic of stamping “Denied” or “Approved” on a passport. However, in order to reach this choice, you have to manually sift through several documents to determine which choice you will make. This often comes down to spotting one key minor detail that invalidates a document and calling the would-be visitor out on it. With a constantly running clock, it is a high-pressure scramble to spot any irregularities you can before making your choice.
With each successive day, the job gets layered with more and more complex rules that you must abide by. At one point a neighboring country is suspected of trying to send spies across the border, so you must perform a full body scan before letting anyone from that country through. Your rule book drastically changes with each day. On top of that, your tenure as border inspector is riddled with moralistic choices, some having a major impact to the inspector’s life, while others just leave you with a punch in the gut. Early on, one such choice is whether or not to approve a woman whose husband has just successfully entered the country while she’s missing a key paper. You have the power in your hands to keep a family together or to rip them apart.
Your situation is further complicated with the political unrest that comes with the opening of the Arstotzkan border. Early on, you experience a bombing that puts the country on high alert. As you progress, more and more terrorist attacks occur as tension builds between rival nations. Not long after the first terrorist attacks you are contacted by a group known only as “The Order” who strive for a political upheaval, claiming that the Arstotzkan government is greedy and corrupt. You are then offered the choice to help them, ignore them, or report them, all of which result in the game having drastically different endings.
If all this wasn’t enough, at the end of every work day you return home to your family with your wages and determine if you will be able to provide food and warmth that day. Often times, you will find that you can barely scrape by, or, even worse, you have to choose between food and warmth. If your family becomes too hungry or too cold, then they risk getting sick and adding the cost of medicine to your daily bills, and if you can’t pay for medicine your family quickly dies in the harsh winter environment. The result of your family’s death is your immediate removal from your post in favor of “someone more appropriate” for the job.
Overall, Papers Please was thrilling. It’s fast paced gameplay has you frantically moving until you become the automated machine it wants you to be. That combined with its retro propaganda art style and its ever present march of a musical score make for an innovative and memorable experience in the nuances of asking to look at some papers and then stamping them.
Glory to (the New) Arstotzka.
- Daniel Griffith