Glory to Arstotzka
Papers, Please is an indie game that reminds the player of the boredom and frustration of waiting in line while a border inspector checks to make sure all the information on your passport is in order. Believe me, though, it’s not as bad as you think. Developed by former Naughty Dog emplyee Lucas Pope and originally released in 2013, Papers, Please manages to take something as mundane as verifying information and turn it into an intense video game experience that sticks with you even after you finish playing it. It lingers not only because of its unique gameplay but also its bleak atmosphere and memorable characters.
In the game, you live in the fictional communist country Arstotzka in 1982. You’ve recently been assigned to a job at the border crossing as an inspector. Your task is to inspect the documents of everybody trying to come into the country and to only accept anyone who has all their affairs in order. Though things start out fairly quiet, the world slowly starts to unravel. Terrorist attacks, recurring characters trying to get past the border, and a secret organization trying to bring down the system, for example, are just the beginning of it.
The gameplay entails checking documents to make sure they all check out. Your inspection booth comes equipped with tools that allow you to check for any discrepancies, but you’ll have to rely heavily on your own eyes to notice everything. The game has a very good difficulty curve that eases you into the seemingly simple gameplay mechanics. On the first day, all you have to do is deny entry to all foreigners, which is just as easy as taking a glance at the passport. But as the game goes on, more parameters and objects to check become available, and you have to spend more time with each person, closely analyzing every single detail in their documents and constantly checking your guide book to find anything wrong. It’s a simple game on the surface, but it gradually becomes more complicated as you play. Eventually, it lulls you into a sense of security; you start to get so wrapped up in trying to do your job right yet also trying to balance every little thing you need to keep track of. As a result, it’s heart-stopping when you hear the sound of a message being printed out that tells you what mistake you made.
The gameplay (for me, at least) is incredibly immersive and intense, but I’ll admit that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s not “fun” in the traditional sense, but depending on how well you’re able to get invested in it, it can be really engaging. The idea of staring at everybody’s documents doesn’t sound exciting, but excitement doesn’t seem to be what the game is going for. It imitates the depressing monotony of this line of work excellently, and that might be a turnoff to some people. But it strangely works for me, and it might work for you, too. It does require an attention to detail that not everybody has, and because its mechanics are not very complex, the game doesn’t have a ton of replay value. You’ll probably get all you can out of Papers, Please in one playthrough, which will probably take you around three to four hours.
But something that does help you get invested during that short time is the atmosphere and story the game presents. As you can imagine, the game has a heavy Cold War-esque theme, taking place in a country obviously inspired by the Soviet Union. So it makes sense that the general mood of the game is very oppressive. The colors are very bleak, with greys and dulled tones making up for most of the palette. It’s a choice the works given the game’s theme and one that also compliments the pixel art. The art, while not the cleanest, does add to the dreariness and serious nature of the game. It also helps that there’s very little in the way of sound in the game, and there is no music except for the main title theme – you’re constantly accompanied by the droning hum of a dystopian city with the occasional car passing. All of it adds up to an unforgettable atmosphere that really helps set Papers, Please apart from the rest.
Another part of the game I really like is the story and characters it creates. The overall story doesn’t really get going until partway through once unique events start happening on each day – particularly concerning an agent of a mysterious organization who tries to enlist you in their schemes. If you don’t find the gameplay that engaging, then the sequences where the game builds up its story might be more to your liking. A lot of the characters are very memorable. My personal favorite is Jorji, a bumbling man who is so obsessed with the idea of getting into Arstotzka but constantly fails to have the proper paperwork. Seeing his determination not only makes me smile but provides a nice change of pace from the constant darkness of the rest of the game.
It’s great to see the human element come out through these unique characters, even when some of them are memorable because of how terrible they are (again, it’s an Eastern setting inspired by the Cold War, so the political aspect is pretty obvious). The characters and the struggles they go through almost act as a reminder to be hopeful during the bleakness of checking passports. Occasionally, the game will ask you to make a choice that often boils down to either A) help out somebody in need, or B) do your job correctly. It’s something you always have to keep in mind when you play; do you want to make life better for somebody while going against your superiors or perform your duties while knowing that doing so will negatively impact somebody else. This even extends to your character’s family, whom you must take care of as the days go on. This is one area that I feel could have been fleshed out more; you have the option not to pay for food or heat every week, but if you play well enough, you should always have the money to do so. I guess it works as an incentive to keep doing your best, but it feels more tacked on than anything – I just wish there was more development on this aspect.
On the whole, though, Papers, Please is something executed so well that it absolutely needs to be experienced. Experienced is the key word there – this is more of an experience than a traditional game. And it isn’t for everybody, but if you’re able to get into its divisive gameplay, you’ll definitely be invested in the story it tells and the characters that come across your border station. It might not be for you, and it doesn’t have much in the way of lasting appeal, but for the time it remains fresh, it’s absolutely wonderful.