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It’s 1982, and you’re an inspector working the border of Arstozka during the harsh winter. You spend your long days staring at wrinkled documents to go with the worn faces that pass through your checkpoint. A jolly man walks up to your booth and expresses his eagerness to enter the country. He tells a tale of his escape from the tyranny and oppression of Antegria, to start anew in Arstozka. As you stamp his documents, he smiles and says, “Please be kind to my wife, she is just after me,” and he exits the booth. “NEXT!” Your voice booms over the loud speaker, echoing to the columns of people still waiting to be processed. A frail, sickly woman enters the booth and faces you. “Papers, please,” you say, and she slides a passport through the slot in the glass partition that separates you.
Her papers are not in order. Her entry permit is missing. She asks, “Did you see my husband? He made it through, yes?” You inquire about the missing document, and she panics and says, “Please, I beg you. They would not give me a permit. I have no choice. I will be killed if I return to Antegria.” Her husband is waiting patiently by the guards beyond the checkpoint. Your hand hovers over the denial stamp. You have a family, too, and they’re shivering in the dank class-8 apartment that the government has provided you. Letting this woman in without proper papers will reflect poorly on your record, meaning less money to pay the heating bill for your sick family. The red stamp comes down with an authoritative plop: DENIED. The woman stands in shock, then mutters, “Why? You have doomed me.”
That’s one way a scenario could play out it in Papers, Please, an indie PC game for Windows and Mac developed by Lucas Pope. In Papers, Please, you play an inspector at the border checkpoint of the fictional Eastern Bloc country of Arstozka. It is your job to carefully inspect the documents that foreigners provide you, making sure to catch any discrepancies that would instill any doubt that the documents they hand to you do not properly reflect the owner. You’ll encounter all sorts of interesting characters and stories along the way. Some people will be simple immigrants, but let the wrong person in and you could be witness to a smoldering corpse and a heap of dead guards because you let a terrorist suicide bomber through the checkpoint. How you act during these times will affect the outcome of the game, leading you down different story paths and ultimately at one of the 30 endings that the game has to offer.
That’s the beauty of Papers, Please. There’s a reason to keep playing it over and over again. The objective is simple: do your job. Good luck not getting distracted by the likes of begging families, recruitment attempts by a mysterious rebel group, and the lovely master of forged documents, Jorji Costava of “Cobrastan.” In one playthrough, you may stay loyal to the government. In another you join the rebel group and bring revolution to the people of Arstozka, which requires paying close attention to the questionable instructions given by the mysterious hooded agents, while also doing a well enough job as an inspector to remain a valuable inside man to the group and keep your family alive.
Despite all of the surrounding drama, the gameplay itself is actually rather simple. The game at its core is a puzzle, and, as the name implies, you’ll be staring at virtual paperwork for most of it. At first, travelers are only required to present a passport. Your job at this point is to make sure their photos match, that the gender is correct, that the issuing city is valid according to their originating country, and that the passport isn’t expired. As the game goes on, escalating unfortunate events require increased security. Now, foreigners require entry tickets. Then, tickets become invalid, and they must instead present entry permits, listing the reason for entry and duration of stay. Workers suddenly need work permits. Then come the identity supplements, listing the height and weight of the individual, leading “random” body searches with an invasive body scanner (which is sort of anachronistic for 1982) to make sure they’re not carrying any weapons or contraband.
All of these elements build upon each other, increasing the points of failure. You’re allowed to make two mistakes a day, but after that, it starts to come out of your pay. It’s overwhelming at first, yet, with enough practice, it becomes routine. You’ll eventually memorize items like the issuing cities and train your eye to discern discrepancies quickly without making mistakes. The more people you process correctly, the more you get paid, which means keeping your family alive. Yet the game will continue to challenge you by throwing in scenarios that differ from the norm. For instance, your boss will tell you to let a certain person through, even if they don’t have the right papers, and it’s up to you to remember that person’s name. Otherwise, they’ll get lost in the shuffle.
To further the replay value of the game, once you finish the story with your job intact, you’ll unlock a selection of “Endless” modes. These include three different game modes: Timed, Perfection and Endurance. Timed challenges you to process as many travelers as you can in 10 minutes. Perfection keeps going until you make a mistake. Endurance has you play until your salary goes into the negative. Each mode also allows you to select which sets of documents are presented to you through the course of play, and your score is kept and posted to a set of worldwide leaderboards.
The game’s graphics are of a pixel nature, which is to be expected of indie games these days. The pixel art features dull, desaturated colors to fit the dystopian mood of the game. The faces of the individuals you process are usually randomly generated from a set of pre-drawn faces and hair, with the exception of special characters. There’s only a certain amount of faces and hair you’ll encounter, so you’ll see some obvious repeats in multiple playthroughs. These character portraits are static, for the most part, unmoving, even in regards to facial expressions.
The top half of the screen depicts the events happening outside of your inspection booth. From here you’ll witness the line up of travelers and immigrants, as well as terrorist attacks and other unfortunate occurrences. These scenes are less detailed, featuring only silhouettes as characters, but the scenes that play out are still shocking enough to create some emotional resonance.
There are a few things that I initially felt were shortcomings of the game, but I would now describe them more as purposeful challenges. Some actions, especially special interactions with certain characters, aren’t very clear as to how they’re accomplished. But the game is a puzzle game after all, and finding out the solutions is part of the game. The presentation of the game sort of tricks you in this regard. With all the interesting scenarios you encounter, you sort of forget the game’s genre. It’s somewhat frustrating the first time a man stands at your booth and doesn’t hand you any documents, and you have to figure out how to get the game going again. The game only provides you with the in-game rulebook with very general instructions. There are no handholding tutorials here. It was through trial and error that I found out how to point out discrepancies using the rulebook. You’ll encounter many strange scenarios that require you to deviate from your normal workload without spelling it all out. Figuring out the process is part of the puzzle.
Similarly, the small on-screen workspace you have to deal with feels limiting at times. When documents start to crowd your desk, you may find yourself accidentally picking up the wrong papers, or misplacing certain documents. But, organizing your desk is part of the game, a verisimilitude that’s reflected in real-life desk jobs. The game can get very difficult during the later days of the game. For players having a hard time, the game offers an “Easy Mode” which gives you an extra 20 credits per day, allowing you to make more mistakes, but the nature of this game will make you want to get better.
I’m most impressed by the game’s narrative structure in regard to gameplay, encouraging multiple replays to see all the story threads to their end. The gameplay is always kept fresh since new elements are consistently introduced as the game progresses. It is also just fun to play, and it’s a great way to kill time. I often found myself playing for longer sessions than I intended. At only $10, the game presents an incredible value.
I give Papers, Please a 5 out of 5.
Papers, Please is available on both Mac and Windows systems. You can purchase the game on Good Old Games or Steam for $10 (though purchasing from Good Old Games nets you some digital extras). If you’re unsure of spending money, but would like to try the game anyway, the game’s beta is available for free on the developer’s website. It’s an old preview of the game, and a lot has been added to the full game since then, but it makes a good free demo.
By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra