Reviews: Papers Please
Papers, Please Review
Papers, Please assumes you're a control officer at the border just open to the public. Your job is to look up the documents from person in question and decide its legitimacy according to the rules from the government. Payment strictly depends on how many visitors you've checked, so you have to make the process as quick and efficient as possible to support your family's well-being. Of course, this being set in imaginary communist country where people struggle to live, things just don't go well. Some will get offended by your decision, trying to revert it with threats or bribes. Others will beg for your sympathy and ask for your mercy to earn your approval. Your workplace also happens to be occasional target of smuggling and terrorism, meaning that your wage can be suddenly cut off for reasons you don't involved in. Let's talk about how this plays out. The main game works like a matching puzzle; you have to constantly compare papers to the guides until you're 100% sure the figure is clear or not. To simply put, unless you have an innate talent, this is going to be crazily overwhelming work. While the first few days are relatively breeze, things get a real chore as the game tosses you numerous rules to follow, day by day. If you're going for the best ending (or at least keeping your family alive), you'll have to restart over and over just to grab enough money at the end of work day. It doesn't help there're often unexpected events you have to react real quick. (Tip: Play the game in window mode and display the rule book somewhere in the corner. Or just print it out.) However, despite the increasing annoyance in its mechanics, the rest of experience in Papers, Please remains engrossing thanks to its narrative. Over the course of a month in the job, you'll meet countless visitors passing the gate, each one having their own little story: Grumbling about strict policy on foreigners, handing over name cards to promote their job, looking for lifetime chance by abusing loopholes of the law, and so on. Some of them, often recurring more than once, even actively ask you to help them, often challenged with moral dilemmas. Even though the player's role is merely confined to border-control booth, the game successfully shows a great view of dystopian world in conceivable way. It's true that the game isn't interesting to actually play as much as to talk about, but Papers, Please still stands as a prime example of how video game can tell the story. It's a proof that even with simplistic presentation, it can effectively deal with such heavy, complex subjects.
The Most Fun You'll Ever Have Simulating Utter Futility and Mind-Numbing Hopelessness
Saying this is a game about checking paperwork is misleading. Checking paperwork is a mechanic of the game, like pushing an analog stick. The game is about living in a totalitarian state, and what that does to your priorities. It's always easy to blame the face of the nation; easy to dismiss "Just following orders" as a paltry excuse. But what that excuse really means is: "Just feeding my family", or "Just trying not to get executed for treason", or "Just trying to do the right thing". Better still, while the player's home nation of Arstotzka is hardly a pleasant one, on day two, it completely opens its borders! ...only to be attacked by terrorists. And become a haven for drug runners and worse criminals. And be infiltrated by its enemies. What's beautiful about Papers, Please is that everything your "evil" totalitarian government does comes as a direct response to something awful having happened. If no-one had suicide-bombed Arstotzka, there wouldn't BE draconian security measures. A game that explores bureaucracy and ethics and morality, and it does it with a (dark) sense of humor and without ever trying to tell you that it knows the answers. It's one of a kind. It's a test of your attention to detail, your memory, and your humanity, and none of these are as pass-fail as you expect.
A new experience, and a well-made one at that
The core gameplay of Papers Please goes like this: a person hands you their papers, and you drag them to your desk and look for discrepancies. Every line can have something wrong with it (e.g., it may say the person is 160cm tall when you can see that their taller, or the passport number may not match up with the number on something else). So you have to look through it all before stamping approval. If that doesn't sound like fun to you, you may be right, but for those still interested, you'll probably enjoy this game for at least a while. There's a certain stress to looking through the papers, not knowing if they're legit, knowing that if you mess it up, you'll get another citation and if you take too long, you won't process enough people and will end up short on cash, which you don't want to be. With just the core gameplay alone, the game would be something new, but then there are colorful characters mixed in with the regular entrants. Some are just one-offs with a sob story or some kind of banter, others will be part of little story arcs that can make you some extra money. The biggest story arc is that of a revolutionary movement that asks for your cooperation in taking down the government. Everything looks just right within the bounds of the EGA-style graphics. The random faces, the soft stressed breathing, etc. With its minimalist design and attention to detail, the game can really pull you in and make you feel like you're there, examining papers with bureaucratic efficiency and making ethical decisions on the way, some of which may change the goings-on in Arstotzka. There's a certain rhythm to it and even though it's just a game it can feel good when you're moving along quickly with no errors. This is separated from a lot of the other "art" games out there by being backed with very solid gameplay, if you're into what it offers. Overall, for what it is, I give it 3.5 out of 4. The only complaint is I would have liked to see a few more characters in the story mode (even though it already has quite a few), and to see a little more randomness as to when the less important ones appear, just to give it a less "fixed" feel on subsequent playthroughs. There is some variation (for some minor characters, it's random what they look like and whether they have discrepancies), but I feel there could have been more randomness still.