Originally released on Steam in 2013, Papers, Please is an indie game created by a sole developer: Lucas Pope. Mr. Pope was formally a developer for Naughty Dog, the company behind many famous game series such as Crash Bandicoot, Jak & Daxter, and Uncharted. He left the company shortly after working on the Uncharted series to become an independent developer. As an expatriate residing in Japan, Mr. Pope went through the immigration process, describing it as tense. He then later thought to himself that a fun game could be made from his experiences. I can certainly attest to his claims of the process being tense myself, but is it something that could really be made into a game?
Playing the Game
The year is 1982, and a six-year war between the countries of Arstotzka and Kolechia has concluded. A wall between the two countries now runs through the center of the border city of Grestin – the western half claimed by Kolechia, the eastern half by Arstotzka. Families have been divided by this conflict, unable to return home. That all changes today, for the Arstotzkan government has built a checkpoint, allowing passage into the country at long last.
This brings us to the gameplay – Papers, Please can be summed up as a paperwork simulator. A lottery was held by the Ministry of Labor to determine who would become the checkpoint’s inspector. Your name was pulled and it is up to you to examine the documentation of each entrant and decide whether or not they are allowed to enter the country. The first two days start off simple enough: you only have to examine their passports. It gets trickier from the third day onwards when new documents are introduced. Eventually, you’ll be sifting through multiple documents per entrant, looking out for mismatching names, wanted criminals, and forged documents among other things.
You highlight discrepancies using inspection mode. By clicking on mismatched information, you are then allowed to interrogate the entrant. Doing so will sometimes allow you to take a second step depending on the situation such as fingerprinting or conducting a full body scan. You can also detain individuals should they act suspiciously, which could include presenting forged documents or attempting to smuggle contraband into the country.
There is a limited amount of time per day to inspect the entrants’ paperwork. This is important because you’re paid by how many people you process. The Ministry of Labor is obsessed with the nation’s future growth and expects all government employees to support large, healthy families. A significant portion of your salary goes to rent, food, and heat for your family members. Therefore, for the most part, you cannot take your time and the game encourages you to process as many entrants as possible. Should you let someone with invalid papers into the country or deny someone who had their papers in order, you will immediately receive a citation and you will not receive money for processing that person. Get enough citations and you’ll start getting fined, crippling your finances. Thankfully, it resets every day. That is to say, you get fined if you make three or more mistakes in one day, but won’t should you make only one mistake on three separate days.
At this point, you’re probably thinking that a game about examining paperwork would be an insufferably boring one. That’s where you would be wrong. Papers, Please belongs in the same category as the Ace Attorney series in that the game’s creator takes a mundane scenario and makes it fun, engaging, and amazingly intense. I described Papers, Please as a paperwork simulator before, but it could also be considered a puzzle game in that it emphasizes problem solving, lateral thinking, and honing one’s observational skills.
I can also tell when playing that the design decisions behind Papers, Please were made to provide as good a gameplay experience as possible. It doesn’t make much sense in-universe why the inspector would receive a citation as soon as he makes a mistake, but finding out at the end of the day (or worse, on a later day), would make the game very frustrating. Starting from the fifth day, you can upgrade your booth, which translates to enabling keyboard shortcuts. For instance, the first upgrade allows you to enter inspection mode by pushing the space bar. They make the game much easier later on when things start getting complicated. My only complaint in this regard is that there is no shortcut for the loudspeaker. For the entire game, you have to click on it in order to advance the queue. To be fair, you only do it in between entrants, unlike the actions associated with the real upgrades, which are handy during the actual inspection.
Analyzing the Story
Though the storytelling is minimalistic and the dialogue is sparse, this game manages to have more personality than most of what the AAA industry can dole out. In a way, Papers, Please isn’t a singular story as much as it is a compilation of stories in which you happen to play a small, albeit important, part. Some of the entrants are scripted and therefore carry their own backstories, but the same could be said of the randomly-generated ones. Why does this entrant have more than one name? What is causing this one to seek political asylum? How did this other one end up on a government watch list? These are all questions that will never be answered, but they nonetheless add a lot of depth and character to an already intriguing game.
Arguably the best part about Papers, Please from a story perspective is its oppressive atmosphere. With its labor lotteries, strict border control, xenophobia, and zero tolerance for delinquency, Arstotzka is a pastiche of various communist and fascist regimes that have existed throughout history. Consequently, this game demonstrates how difficult it is to be a good person in a high-pressure environment. Waiving the rules to help the desperate entrants is indeed noble, but will earn you less money, thus making it difficult to keep your family healthy. In addition to reminding me of The Oregon Trail, this mechanic is one of the best implementations of a moral dilemma I’ve seen in a video game.
All too often, karma systems in games operate on a very binary moral code: are you going to be a paragon of virtue or a complete psychopath? The other main problem with them is that whether you’re good or evil, the difficulty levels of each path are usually interchangeable. In other words, your freedom of choice is an illusion; if it’s just as easy to be good as it is to be evil, what’s the point in being evil? Instead, Mr. Pope seems to have taken lessons from BioShock by creating a scenario where you can be a good person, but you have to make personal sacrifices in order to do so. Fortunately, once you’ve gotten the hang of the game, you can enrich the entrants’ lives while successfully supporting a family. It’s a nice touch that humanizes the main character using the game mechanics.
Finally, the story of Papers, Please is one that benefits from being in a video game. Despite its simplicity, you have a surprisingly large impact on how the story develops. At the start of the day, you are shown newspapers headlines, which detail both domestic and international events. Sometimes, by allowing, denying, or detaining certain entrants, the headlines will change to reflect your decision. Nothing is worse than when you let someone through who had valid paperwork only to learn that said entrant went on to commit a murder the next day. Furthermore, this game features twenty different endings. Admittedly, a majority of these endings are non-standard game overs, achieved through means such as violating protocol or going into debt. There are only three endings that I would consider legitimate conclusions, as they are the only ones accompanied with credit sequences.
To help enrich your experience, Papers, Please features a novel save system that’s reminiscent of the flow chart from Virtue’s Last Reward. Progress is saved after each day. Should you decide to go back to an earlier day, rather than overwriting the next save, it branches off into a new timeline. That way, if you’re running low on money or you want to get a different ending, rather than having to start the game over from the very beginning each time, you can replay that day to achieve the desired results.
Drawing a Conclusion
Many indie titles capture the attention of the community because they challenge the status quo of what constitutes a video game. Out-of-the-box creativity is important for any work, but all too often, these games end up like The Stanley Parable – experiences that are interesting while they last, but aren’t really all that fun to play, thus missing the point of the medium entirely. Other times, these games turn out like Mother 3, which I know is not an indie title, but whether directly inspired by it or not, a lot of solo developers try to imitate its style wherein they fill their stories to the brim with pathos in lieu of creating something that’s enjoyable. There may be some unique ideas present, but very few, if any, of them enhance the gameplay in any significant way, and they’re invariably outclassed by their predecessors. In spite of these deal-breaking flaws, the end result is the same; critics will trip over themselves giving these otherwise middle-of-the-road games five-star reviews.
Because of this propensity, I was initially hesitant to try Papers, Please for myself, thinking that it would be gimmicky and one-dimensional. However, I quickly changed my mind once I saw a fan of this game play through the first few days. I’m glad I ultimately gave it a chance, because Papers, Please is one of the best indie games I’ve ever played along with other gems such as La-Mulana and Shovel Knight. Despite the minimalistic story, I found myself wanting to know how it would develop, and the inclusion of multiple endings adds a lot of replay value. Though most of the endings felt underdeveloped, I still wanted to see every possible path the plot could take. Papers, Please should be studied by aspiring indie developers everywhere because it hits all of the right notes; it’s a case where the creator had many unique ideas and successfully used them to make a game that’s both fun and innovative.
Congratulations, Mr. Pope. Your paperwork simulator, which only takes up about forty megabytes of space, manages to be more interesting and exciting than your former colleagues’ efforts despite them having beautifully-rendered cutscenes and top-notch voice acting at their disposal. Now there’s just one thing left to do…
Final Score: 8/10