Papers, Please is a detective-style game set in a communist state, Arstotzka, where you act as a border inspector for incoming citizens. In Papers, Please, your tasks consist simply of asking a citizen for their passport and other papers, inspecting it for any discrepancies, and then either approving or rejecting them for entry to Arstotzka.
When the game first opened up, the musical style and slow, determined pace of the menu set the tone for a slow, steady slog, which was reflected in the gameplay. Ironically, Papers, Please presents what might be one of the most rote tasks as its core gameplay - take a passport, inspect it for discrepancies, interrogate the citizen about them, mark approve or reject, pass it back, repeat - and managed to keep me very engaged throughout.
During the first few days of the game, the tension of pacing makes the experience exciting. For example, the player needs to pass as many citizens through as possible in order to make money to survive, but errant approvals are met with warnings and potentially greater punishments. In particular, the communist setting actually makes me a little afraid to find out what will happen when I let too many fake passports through.
After playing Papers, Please for a longer time, it was clear that the incredible writing of the game takes the player out of a rote, boring job and places them in the middle of many different storylines. At it’s core, Papers is about simply examining a person’s papers and either approving or denying them. However, the dialog presents a lot of moral dilemmas. For example, one man comes in with spotless papers and, before leaving, says, “my wife is just behind me. Please make sure she gets in too!” The wife, of course, is missing an important paper. According to the rules of the game, you need to deny her access, but at the same time as a human you are presented with the option to show a little compassion, as the cost of being issued a warning for your mistake.
In addition to small moral choices, storylines begin to develop through these short exchanges. After a few encounters, the player begins to learn of the EZIC, a mysterious organization that seems determined to bring down the corrupt communist state. At the same time, the player must weigh whether a few “mistakes” in allowing people through are worth the promises of the organization. Other characters, such as a guard who is dealing with economic hardships, start to try bribing you to do them favors, like pass out business cards or detain as many citizens as possible.
By the time these stories have developed, the core gameplay is a background mechanic. I was fully immersed in the world, concerned about the citizens I was kicking out of the country, struggling with the moral dilemma of sending people with bad documentation to jail mercilessly, but at the same time trapped by my poverty, so that accepting bribes and compromising myself felt like the only way to get by. Papers, Please was a beautiful balance of simple, easy to learn gameplay and interwoven storylines that make the player think deeply about their choices and experience truthfully what it feels like to attempt to scrape by in a communist state.
- Thomas S.