Papers Please is a game where you play a border official in a small totalitarian country, checking passports and identity documents against a small handbook to try and spot any discrepancies or forgeries. As a concept it’s basically one step removed from those sodding hidden object games that plague Steam like a bad case of athlete’s foot, but Papers Please excels so well in its setting and execution that it’s ended up being one of the most engrossing puzzle games I’ve played in the last couple of years.
Let’s start with the art style. It must have taken a lot of talent to make Papers Please look this retro without making me want to claw my own eyes out as Swords and Sworcery did. Papers uses a muted palette whose occasional flashes of colour and animation style bring to mind a particularly good-looking Amiga game, and the pixelated nature of the documents you are presented with make them curiously easy to parse since your eye is drawn naturally to the parts which matter. Your field of view is restricted to a panorama of the border checkpoint running along the top of the screen, filled with monochrome animated silhouettes of guards and a winding, snakelike line of people waiting for entry into the grey concrete cinderblock dystopia of Arstotzka. Below that the screen is divided into two halves: one contains a the view out through the window of your booth, at which prospective entrants to the country present themselves for inspection, and the other is the top of your desk which will always be covered in a bewildering array of identity papers.
It’s actually quite impressive how Papers Please manages to keep introducing more and more types of document as the Story campaign goes on. First you have a simple passport check, with only Arstotzkan nationals allowed entry. Then foreigners are allowed in, but only if they have an appropriate entry slip. Then the entry slip isn’t enough, and they require full entry permits. Then Artsotzkan nationals are required to present their ID cards along with their passports. Then foreigners looking for work are required to present a third kind of document, the work permit. It carries on and on in this vein, with each new document presenting more variables and fields that have to be checked for discrepancies, and what didn’t seem like a particularly easy job to begin with starts to feel like you’re juggling flaming torches, trying desperately not to make a mistake that will lead to a painful penalty,
Even checking all those different types of document would be easy if there wasn’t a time factor involved, of course. The border checkpoint is open for twelve hours each day, from six in the morning to six in the evening, and your salary is (somewhat bizarrely) paid according to the number of people you manage to correctly pass or turn away from the border. You need to earn a minimum amount of money each day to rent and heat your apartment and feed your family, and this is pitched at just the right level to make you always aware of how much time you’re taking to check all the documents. There is no time to be truly thorough; Papers Please is a constant balancing act between “Is this guy actually legit?” and “Sod it, pass him anyway because there’s two hours left and I’ve only done six people today.” Excellently you can pass a level having earned less than the total amount of money you need to take care of your relatives, but the heat will get cut off and the end of day screen will tell you that they’re cold and hungry. I don’t know what happens if you fluff two days in a row like this, but I can only assume it’s appropriately depressing.
So that’s the source of pressure egging you on to check documents quickly; you never see your family but they’re effective enough as a crude barometer of how well you’re doing in the story. It’s complicated further by individual days introducing different requirements and challenges that test your ability to adapt to new situations, like the guard who gets paid a bonus for each person you detain and offers to share it with you if you detain more people, or the spy making a dead drop at your border checkpoint. Papers Please is rather stingy with its background information so when you go after these special objectives you’re never quite sure if you’re doing the right thing; it does rather perfectly capture the feel of a border official just trying to do their job and feed their family who doesn’t need all this other shit on their plate right now – especially when just fulfilling the day-to-day requirements of their job means they have to do some rather unpleasant things.
Yes, if there is one thing that Papers Please does get absolutely right it’s how utterly soulless and dehumanising the process of crossing a national border can be. This is reflected in two ways. First there’s the more extreme security procedures that become situationally available, like the Search button that produces a monochrome image of the unlucky person currently in the booth which looks not dissimilar to this, except with a little more detail1 that really rams home just how little your personal dignity can count for when you go through customs. It gets particularly uncomfortable when you’re called upon to use it to check someone’s gender, and even though it’s all done with pixels the Search scan is still one of the more questionable things I’ve had to do in a game recently – not in a bad way, as such, as Papers Please is using it to make a point and using it well, but it’s still something that gave me pause for a few moments.
Then there’s the more prosaic examples of human misery that pass through your checkpoint every day. For some reason there are a lot of people who really, really want to get into Arstotzka, to the point of forging fake identity papers and/or trying to talk their way past the checkpoint without them, and while stamping that big red DENIED on most of them is easy enough there’s a couple that make you think “I’m not entirely sure I like what I’m doing right now”, like the woman who knows she will be killed if she goes back to neighbouring Kolechia, or the woman who, upon being caught out, refuses to leave the booth until the guards forcibly remove her. Papers Please isn’t 100% inflexible on who you admit and who you deny access to since you can make up to two “incorrect” decisions per day without penalty, so if you’re doing particularly well you’re not forced to be a total monster. Still, more often than not you need those free passes to cover for your own mistakes, and so the situation will arise in which you’re forced to doom somebody’s husband or wife in order to make enough money to take care of your own family. It’s not a great feeling, for all that none of it is actually real.
Sadly despite all these unusual and awesome things Papers Please ends up doing the actual process of playing it is quite some way from being perfect. While everything does run smoothly once you’ve got the basic processes for checking discrepancies down, figuring out what those processes are in the first place can be an exercise in frustration as you try to work out what the game wants you to do while the timer ticks down. I’ve had to replay more than one day because despite spotting a problem with somebody’s papers I didn’t know how to flag it up in the context of the game. Discrepancies are checked via a little button in the bottom right that allows you to compare document stamps and information with the correct versions in a little rulebook that’s always stashed under the desk, but – for example – if somebody walks up to your window and doesn’t bother presenting any documents it’s not immediately clear how you get them to go away, since there’s nothing to compare in the first place. I also don’t like how basic keyboard shortcuts are worked into the game as purchasable “upgrades” for your booth. They make the game a lot easier but you can only get them if you’re already doing well, and so they could act as a potential gameplay blocker if you’ve managed to get yourself into a position where you have no money left and can’t earn enough to support your family without them. Still, if you can swallow gameplay niggles like that and don’t mind repeating the odd day – which takes five minutes at most — Papers Please is unique, singularly depressing (in a good way) and cheap at £6.99 on Steam, so if any of this sounds appealing to you at all you should probably get off the (border) fence and buy it. It’ll probably make you feel like a complete dick, but it’s worth it.
- Yes, Papers Please does have full-frontal nudity as the default setting, although you can add underwear in the options if staring at cartoon naughty bits makes you uncomfortable. ↩