Papers, Please, which celebrated its 1-year anniversary last week, is described as “a dystopian document thriller” – quite an intriguing mouthful for a game description, but nonetheless a very fitting description for a truly unique game. Heavily influenced by the border systems present during World War II, Papers, Please introduces the player to the communist state of Arstotzka, which recently ended a 6-year war with its neighbors and otherwise reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.
Winning the lottery would be a nice thing – everywhere but in Arstotzka and in Shirley Jackson’s novel. Unlike Jackson’s novel however, the player gets to live after winning the lottery, but they are forced to take the job as an immigration inspector. And without further ado or formal introduction, day one starts and the player has to face foreigners wanting to immigrate and citizens wishing to return – all with both poor and good attempts to cross the border and (re-)enter Arstotzka.
The gameplay appears extremely simple, but as the game progresses and more regulations are added to the border-security and immigration processes, the harder and more complex the game becomes. The player has to ensure details ranging from name, day-of-birth, sex and passport number to appearance, height and work pass’ are in correct order. Should the player fail to do so, more than three times per shift, a penalty is applied which ultimately hits the player hard as they are under a massive pressure to support a wife, mother-in-law, son and uncle with food, heat, medicine and shelter.
This ultimately introduces a great range of moral choices – should the player bend the rules after hearing some visitor’s heartbreaking stories and let them enter; knowing the consequences? A few achievements are in fact challenging the player’s moral stance – for instance, should an aging woman be allowed to visit her son despite having discrepancy in her papers? Similar, as the entry requirements tightens – following the significant increase in terrorist attacks inside Arstotzka against the oppressive government – more people may be detained. The choice, however, ultimately is the player’s – but as the nearby guard continues to declare his willingness to share his payment, which happens to be based on the amount of detains, the more tempted the player becomes. It becomes a simple matter of survival and thus prioritization.
An interesting aspect to Papers, Please is the sound effects, audio and graphics. There are no identifiable voices (in any language), but rather extremely robotic and inhumane voices – something which follows the unidentifiable, gender less and anonymous queue outside the inspector booth. Both elements together with the Kafkaesque, colourless and overall dystopian environment greatly amplifies the alienation between the state and the people.
The lack of human compassion is stunning, but perhaps very fitting for a totalitarian bureaucracy which values the state above everything and everyone. This, once again, introduces the player’s role – no action is inconsequential, and with every coin having two sides nothing is just black and white. Yet the player is ultimately the only one who can question the procedures and do the unexpected and unwanted; show compassion and empathy. The choices will ultimately impact the player’s family directly as illnesses, hunger and cold all follows rapidly though.
At first glance the game appears to be completed in just a few hours, and whilst that may be accomplished, then Papers, Please offers twenty different endings – some with very different happenings. The player may find themselves stealing passports for an upcoming escape with their family, disarming a bomb or handing out job-offers for Engineers. It is safe to say that it takes a fair amount of hours to get through all endings, but the game does face some issues when it comes to replayability.
Upon having completed the main endings, the remaining endings appear most attractive for achievement hunters and players who wishes to complete everything. Though it does seem as if developer Lucas Pope (@dukope) made a calculated move in this regard. After completing the game, players are able to re-play the game from any day they wish. Similar, an endless-mode may be unlocked. Both elements help make the game interesting post-completion. This encourages most players to go through all the various endings – something which is very much recommendable.
Papers, Please is in truth an unique game which pokes to the player’s moral and human compassion. It introduces the player to a very special and dystopian environment which, if allowed, greatly influences the player. It is not a game for everyone, but those who wishes to find a raw pearl within the ocean of indie-games and for those who treasures great narrative and design, this is the game.
Glory to Arstotzka.
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