Papers Please gripped me from the get-go. I originally played the freely available beta, which includes 8 days of gameplay, compared to 31 days in the full version, and was instantly taken by its gruelling, dystopian world. Needless to say, I was more than eager to get my hands on the full version. Set in the fictional country of Arstotzka, your job is to accept or refuse immigrants from your neighbouring nationstates. The brutal authoritarian vibe is somewhat reminiscent of Soviet-era Eastern Europe, and this inspiration emanates from every aspect of the game, from its dark, gritty art style, to its deep booming theme tune; and, of course, from its gameplay. By the end I was extremely impressed. But somehow I felt... worn out.
The idea of a game based around immigration control was not something that screamed “fun” at me. Somehow, Papers Please makes it work. Knowing whether or not to let people into Arstotzka involves checking to make sure people’s documents are valid. This begins with simple passport checks. Soon, however, you’ll be checking height, weight, seals, photographs, gender, name, ID, the list goes on.
It quickly becomes overwhelming. While it cleverly introduces mechanics one at a time to ease you into the process, you’re soon bombarded with gargantuan amounts of information, and all of it has to be checked thoroughly. You start to miss little discrepancies. Maybe his date of birth was different on his passport and on his ID card. Maybe her work document didn’t have an official seal on it. The worst I found was the passport-issuing cities. Each country has three cities that can issue passports, and to check the validity of every single person’s passport, you have to either get out your rulebook, navigate to the right country’s page and check the list against the passport, memorise them all, or write the lists down in real life for quicker access. All the documents have to be dealt with in a specifically sized virtual desk space, which soon becomes cluttered and chaotic.
This is deliberate. The plethora of information and the clunky interface are designed perfectly to simulate the administrative nightmare of border control. As evidence of this, rather than the traditional game unlocks that constitute things like new skills, items, or abilities, you unlock improvements to the interface itself, such as tabs in the rulebook for particular sections, or a hotkey to highlight discrepancies. You could easily argue that by physically writing things down in order to make the game easier you would be missing the entire point of the game; the point being that the restrictions are all part of the experience. Having said that, I seriously wouldn’t blame you for doing so. Papers Please is harrowing enough as it is.
To make matters worse, each day is timed, which puts an enormous amount of pressure on you to check people’s papers as quickly as possible. Particularly since at the end of each day you earn money based on your success, and you use that money to keep your family alive. This game doesn’t mess around - if you fail in your duty and struggle to provide for your family, they will die.
Your family are represented in the cold, emotionless way that so much else is represented in this game - statistically. They aren’t even mentioned by name, it’s just ‘Wife’, or ‘Son’, with a status list of things like ‘Cold’ and ‘Hungry’ because you couldn’t afford food or heating, and yet their survival permeates throughout, steering and influencing your decisions. The individual choices you make accumulate to bring you to one of 20 different possible endings, all of which providing a unique outcome for you and your family. The choices leading up to these endings are what make Papers Please feel meaningful, forming a narrative that reveals the extent of the game’s ingenuity.
Your choices have both short and long-term impact on the events in the game, and oftentimes they are so seamlessly integrated into the gameplay that you might have been so engrossed in simply performing your job that you didn’t even realise you just accepted someone into the country that will drastically alter your fate. Even the way new mechanics are introduced feels organic, each one seeming like a sensible progression based on in-game events, such as more stringent checks on those from a country suspected of a terrorist attack.
Like the gameplay itself, your choices can take a toll, inviting you to decide which options you deem to be less evil, or which you think will better serve you and your family. Sometimes these choices make you feel empowered, like you are in control and know exactly what you have to do. Sometimes you feel powerless, being caught in a web of your own making, or being a slave to the incidents happening around you and their subsequent repercussions. The game’s depressing take on choices and their ethical implications may be bleak, but it manages to completely avoid any sense of black and white morality, a move that should be lauded in a gaming market over-saturated by the trope of good versus evil. What’s more, the game has an array of extremely interesting characters, whose interactions stay with you long after you close the game.
However, Papers Please is certainly not without its flaws. For me, there is no real replayability here. I managed to achieve three endings, all of which were branches from my first playthrough. It took me a few hours to get to the final in-game day, and when I did I began to regret certain decisions. Fortunately, the game creates a checkpoint each time you finish a day, providing different save branches where you can jump to any point that you’ve been to in the past. Unfortunately, to achieve any of the other endings I wanted to see, I would have had to have jumped far back towards the start of the game. While some of the gameplay is randomized in order to avoid complete linearity, most of the meaningful interactions are linear. This is completely understandable given that the whole game was made by just one man, and frankly, there is only so much content that one man can create. But what it does mean is that you are forced to replay huge chunks of the game to get a specific ending, with small amounts of gameplay diversity.
This would be fine if I truly found the gameplay to be fun, but for me it eventually became as monotonous and frustrating as I initially expected it to be, and I kept playing primarily to experience and interact with the fantastically immersive and interesting world. There were times I had to replay single days, and even that felt draining. The idea of replaying entire weeks, experiencing so many of the same things and having to force myself through the same old passport checking routines, was an unappealing prospect to say the least. If you find you still enjoy the gameplay by the end of the game, then you may not have the same problem I did. You might not even be as horrified by the idea of Endless Mode as I am, a mode unlocked by reaching one particular ending, which in my opinion by removing the story elements, strips the game of its value. This mode offers various ways of achieving high scores with different rules, and I can understand that it might appeal to some people. I, however, am perfectly happy to give Endless Mode a miss.
Having said all that, there is very little I would change about Papers Please. The interminable passport checks are inherent to the game’s narrative, and without them the narrative would lose its impact. Without them, by the end of the game, I may not have fully embodied the immigration worker, experienced his despair, his hopelessness, and his slow realisation of the true nature of the world around him. The experience varied from being fun, exciting, tense, gruelling, frustrating and even funny, and with the game’s meaningful interactions, its immersive world, and its innovative gameplay, it managed to pull off something special. I can honestly say that from my perspective, Papers Please is the best darned desk job simulator I’ve ever played.