Papers, Please is an indie game created by lone developer Lucas Pope. Originally released via Steam in 2013, Papers, Please turns the immigration process into a surprisingly addicting video game.
The setting of Papers, Please is the fictional dystopian nation of Arstotzka, which has recently ended a lengthy war with rival nation Kolechia. A wall now separates the city of Grestin, with the east side of the city being a part of Arstotzka, while the west side is part of Kolechia. Players take control of a border control officer, who has been randomly selected via lottery for the position, forcefully moving him and his family to a place his government deems convenient. Your job is to look through the papers of those trying to cross the border and search for any discrepancies. If someone’s papers are all in order, you may let them pass. If not, you have to deny them access to Arstotzka.
This all starts out easy enough, as the first two game days only require the player to inspect passports, but as tensions between nations increase (there are five other nations in addition to Arstotzka and Kolechia), new and stricter laws go into effect. People are required to show more and more papers and identifications, leaving players to memorize all the information from their handbook and whatever papers are provided to obsessive-compulsive levels.
There is an even bigger catch to all of this. The player is rewarded with five credits (Arstotzka’s currency) for every person they successfully allow or deny access to the country, so the more people you manage to go through in one of the game’s days, the more money you have to pay rent and take care of your family (which includes a wife, son, mother-in-law and uncle). Should the player make a mistake in their proceedings, they won’t receive the credits. And three mistakes on a given day will begin costing the player money.
This already makes the player’s job difficult, but to add more heft to the game, the player is often given steep moral choices. You may allow a man into the country after he has shown all of his papers, and then when his wife fails to provide the same documents, you will have to decide either to let her through at the expense of your family, or send her back to her war-torn nation and separate her from her husband so your family remains healthy.
It’s honestly some of the best usage of player choice I’ve seen in a game, since it rarely presents players with blatantly right and wrong options. Instead it asks players to make morally ambiguous choices and emotional sacrifices.
What’s really impressive is how much variety Papers, Please manages to squeeze into its limited concept. Players may have to scan people in search of smugglers, detain international criminals if they can find a face matching that on a wanted poster, and even take bribes as a further means to help their family (but be warned, the Arstotzkan government makes sure its citizens don’t make too much money, and should the player get greedy they may be the subject of an investigation). Just when you think you have the game figured out, it adds an extra layer to the formula in the very next game day. To top this versatility off, the game features twenty different possible endings, depending on your performance, the decisions you make, and the people you choose to help (or hinder) along the way.
The player can earn small bonuses in the form of hotkeys. Initially, the player is left to the cursor alone to shuffle through all the game’s documents and stamps which, as you might imagine, can take time. If you manage to unlock the hotkeys, you can shave off precious seconds so that you can get through more people faster, thus earning a bigger paycheck at the end of the day.
On the downside, the number of hotkeys you can unlock are pretty limited, and you can’t gain a hotkey to use the loudspeaker to move the line forward after you’ve finished processing someone (which may not sound like a big deal, except the loudspeaker is pretty small on-screen and dcently removed from most of the other objects you interact with, meaning it will always end up costing you some time despite your best efforts). And admittedly, some points of the game may end up being more stressful than fun, as looking at every tiny detail of every single document as the clock ticks away can sometimes grow tedious.
So while Papers, Please may not be a game for everybody, it is a unique achievement among video games. One that proves the medium can take pretty much any concept – no matter how mundane it may seem – and with the right amount of ingenuity and proper execution, can turn it into a compelling and fun experience.