Published on August 27th, 2013 | by Chris Scott0
Papers, Please Review
Summary: Papers, Please asks players to make the tough choices and chart their own path.
I was at the highest point in my life. My name had been selected by way of lottery to become the new checkpoint inspector at the Arstotzka border crossing of Grestin. My family and I would be given government housing and finally some security would return to my family’s life after years of living in fear that we would die in a Kolechia attack. Six years we lived with that uncertainty, but it only took six days for my own government to destroy everything that was dear to me.
This is the reality of Papers, Please, a bleak work simulation set in late 1982 at the fictional Eastern bloc checkpoint of Grestin, Arstotzka. Upon arriving in Grestin I was quickly sent to work at the checkpoint inspecting the entry papers of those wanting to pass into the motherland. My pay was based on performance, so checking as many entrants as possible was key. I made mistakes but was confident I would get the hang of the job.
Despite living in government housing, money was going to be tight. I had to make tough decisions like whether to pay for heat or food. I figured my second day would be better, despite the administration allowing foreigners entry. This alteration required me to be even more diligent in my inspection process. Everything was going fine until a Kolechian extremist rushed the border and tossed a grenade at our guards. Work shut down early and I had hardly enough money to afford food for the night.
As tensions rose in the region, things continued to get worse for me. I was tasked with ever more paperwork to check and a limited time to do it in. Some of the people that came by left me heartbroken, like a husband who had the proper paperwork to emigrate but his wife did not. I felt bad that I was forced to separate the two but I too had a family to look out for. And it is decisions like these that make Papers, Please such a compelling experience.
Despite never actually seeing my virtual family, I cared for them and wanted the best for them, except for maybe my mother-in-law. I wanted to do a good job at the inspection booth so that they would have a comfortable life. As it turned out I failed, as they all died by day six. That initial gut-wrenching experience of knowing your family is dying because you suck at your job is something I wouldn’t trade. It is an experience you can’t ever have again.
Playing the game a second time, I was better at it, but I also lost the emotional attachment I had to the world. Fortunately the mechanics of the game are compelling enough that while my second, and subsequent playthroughs, lacked an emotional cord, they were still highly engaging experiences.
Each progressive day, the game challenged my skills of observation by adding multiple layers of inspection while replacing older and simpler ones with more complex instructions. At one point there is a long list of restrictions and exceptions that needs to be observed, all while I was on the clock needing to clear as many people without error so that I could maximize my take home pay.
There is also a rather intricate storyline that flows throughout the game dealing with the politics of Arstozka and Kolechia. It is nothing overly invasive but it adds an extra element of engagement and choice to a game already ripe with tension from one’s own personal issues balancing one’s finances trying to keep their family alive. It makes for an interesting and unique experience. I’m not sure I had fun playing (watching my family starve and all) but I also couldn’t be pulled away.
Where games like The Last of Us are visual tour-de-forces that tell a mature story through their cutscenes, there is little actual agency on the player side. Papers, Please is the exact opposite, asking players to make the tough choices and chart their own path. While its emotional effectiveness for me was fleeting at best, it is something I won’t soon forget either and for me that makes Papers, Please a more affecting experience than any other game I’ve played this year.
Note: This review was written with material received from the publisher. For more on our review process, please read here.