Impressions: Communist Document Thriller Papers, Please

By Nathan Grayson on April 16th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

Yes, a document thriller. Papers, Please is a compelling, edge-of-your-seat game about carefully scrutinizing forms. And it’s so clever that I don’t even know where to begin. But I suppose you’ll need to know what it is first, won’t you? Papers heralds from Lucas Pope, creator of the similarly socially conscious Republica Times, but this time you’re in charge of your maybe kinda probably definitely fictionalized Soviet homeland’s border. Or rather, you’re the person who makes sure everyone else has their paperwork in order. If you mess up, you get fined, and that means your family withers to chalky bone under the weight of starvation and sickness. Also, there are some very sinister sorts looking to slip past your iron stamping hand of ultimate justice, so perhaps more hangs in the balance than your benefactors are letting on. Read on for my impressions of the beta demo, and then – if you’re feeling so inclined or swollen with fictional nationalistic pride – give it a try yourself here.

So you have the what, and now here’s why you’re wielding a trained eye and laser-focused stamping hand with extreme prejudice:

“The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin. Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.”

There are so many things to laud in the demo. The incredibly minimal, strikingly stark art and sound design do an excellent job of bringing Arstotzka to life – you know, in a suffocatingly uncomfortable sort of way – and there’s a surprising amount of grim, sometimes grimly humorous personality that bleeds onto its pages. It is, however, the less immediately arresting bits that are really pulling me in so far.

Stamping is so damn satisfying. I want to stamp everything. Sometimes I do. Think you can slip a faulty document past me? WRONG. Now your artlessly falsified picture and suspiciously expired date are quadruple rejected. And you thought you could pressure me into getting sloppy with all your whining and complaining about places to be. If you ever try it again, I will stamp your family. I will stamp your dumb gray cat. I will stamp your life.

It’s all done via movable, intoxicatingly physical documents, too. Seriously, when I say that, I mean the grand majority of everything in the game. One booklet is essentially your tutorial, telling you things like what constitutes a legitimate form and which regions produce real papers – not fraudulent ones. Maybe you’ll need to keep it out for cross-referencing purposes, or maybe you’re a faster learner than me. Usually, though, it helps to have multiple books handy, because discovering falsified documents means connecting facts (or “facts”) that just don’t add up. After a brief interrogation or two, it’s then up to you to decide whether or not your glum new friend makes the cut. Rinse, repeat, discover. Oh, but don’t take too long doing it. The clock’s ticking, after all.

Regardless, it all feels so good. It strikes me as a bit strange that a game that’d never exist outside our paperless, all-digital society so wonderfully hearkens back to the near-sensual crispness of good paper. It’s such a natural, compulsive thing, though – far more tangible than a basic series of interchangeable menus

A surprising amount of story comes through in these rather simple (though increasingly complex) interactions. Background, culture, profession, patience, temperament, health, wealth, whether or not someone’s totally inviting you to a strip club (to be fair, that one’s pretty easy), etc. A lot of it, however, comes down to interpretation, and that’s when you realize those heaping mountains of paper don’t really contain much important information at all. So then, is a worrisome hunch enough reason to totally violate someone’s privacy? That’s your call. Good luck.

There is, however, also the matter of your family, and that’s where the game gets most interesting, but also stands to completely come undone. Without spoiling too much, I will say that things become very gray (in the moral sense; everything is already incredibly gray from the standpoint of, you know, color) over time. Not everyone trying to slither between cracks in your mighty wall of red tape is a terrorist or criminal, so maybe you opt to favor your raw, aching conscience over your pocketbook. Because of this, I initially found providing for my family to be exceedingly difficult, a tightrope chainsaw juggling act of illness, hunger, and creeping cold. Once I really got into the swing of things, though, it was actually somewhat manageable. And if I can stockpile money this early in the game, I have to wonder what that’ll mean for the rest.

But even with that dribble of soiled milk stinking up the otherwise pristinely desolate alleyways, there’s an immense amount of promise here. Papers, Please is a tiny game with enormous ambitions, and it has something very important to say, on top of everything else. Please be good, Papers, Please. I still have a healthy amount of skepticism, but I wish you only the best. Glory to Arstotzka.

Papers, Please will emerge from beta this summer. Also, it’s on Steam Greenlight right now, if all this communism has you itching to vote for something.

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46 Comments »

  1. Gurrah says:

    Sounds amazing, and in some way it comes closer to the real world of espionage (as portrayed in works by le Carre and Boyd) than any of the flashy modern games who pretend to be about espionage will ever come. From what I gather you’re not being the spy and forger yourself but the person in charge of spotting those forgeries.

    Incidentally, could somebody out there make a game about espionage along the lines of XCOM, managing your own Circus instead. DO IT!

    • Brun says:

      From what I gather you’re not being the spy and forger yourself but the person in charge of spotting those forgeries.

      Also known as Counterintelligence.

      • Gurrah says:

        Exactly my point. More suspense and a feeling of secrecy in this game than any of the make-pretend espionage games out there. Not that those aren’t fun in their own right but I was hoping for something like this to come along.

        In other news, I’ve just playd it for about 20 minutes and I feel like an ass now. I had to turn away someone whose passport was just out of date by a couple of days but I couldn’t risk the loss in income… powerful stuff right there.

        • Hahaha says:

          “In other news, I’ve just playd it for about 20 minutes and I feel like an ass now. I had to turn away someone whose passport was just out of date by a couple of days but I couldn’t risk the loss in income… powerful stuff right there.”

          Or you know actually getting fired for being crap at your job? living must be hard for you.

          • Bweahns says:

            Yeah it sucks having compassion. Everyone should just do their job and not ask questions.

          • belgand says:

            Compassion doesn’t really enter into it. If your license is expired, it’s expired. Just because you can’t be bothered to keep it up-to-date doesn’t make it someone else’s problem.

          • Rognik says:

            Even if someone has made a mistake that is entirely their fault, one can and should still have compassion for them. Especially if the mistake is very small and judging them for it has serious consequences, as in this example. You must understand that people behind the iron curtain often struggled for years to even make a simple vacation.

            And in the end, Gurrah denied the person entry anyway. One can have compassion and still make the “right” decision. People are allowed to be complex like that. In fact, I’d go so far to say that if you can ruin a person’s dream without ever second-guessing yourself, you’re an awful person.

          • mouton says:

            @Hahaha
            “Or you know actually getting fired for being crap at your job? living must be hard for you.”

            You are lucky, as you obviously had never any contact with east-european communist state machine. Much of the red tape there existed for very little reason and everybody just struggled to get by. A lot of decisions made by civil servants were politicised and/or arbitrary so following the rules gave you much less guarantee of being treated fairly than in the West.

          • BlackAlpha says:

            @belgand

            And how much money do you think those people are making? It probably takes them a year’s worth of salary just to get a new passport.

    • CutieKnucklePie says:

      “Incidentally, could somebody out there make a game about espionage along the lines of XCOM, managing your own Circus instead. DO IT!”

      YES PLEASE

      • Salvian says:

        Damn you! I thought I was the only one who’d thought of this. Always wanted to make a game about it.

        Seriously, though: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex mixed with X-COM. Who would not want to play that?

        • belgand says:

          An absolute monster, that’s who.

          Ideally it would also keep the heavy moral grey area that exists primarily in the film/manga.

          At the same time I can’t say that a top-down, managerial strategy game is necessarily the best approach. I can see something with more of a role-playing feel to it, at least as an element of the game. Something like Deus Ex. Investigating and exploring should be a key component and squad-based tactical games like X-COM tend not to be very good at that. Actually, how about a combination of Deus Ex, X-COM, and Valkyria Chronicles. You control field agents (not even necessarily in the same location) one at a time in a turn-based fashion. But each activation is in semi-real time (a la VC) with more of a Deus Ex style of open gameplay. Maybe someone spends their entire turn just sneaking into position, trying to hack into something, or just sitting there as overwatch waiting to see what happens.

          I’d also recommend Oni. It had a lot of problems, but it’s one of the most successful attempts to turn GitS into a game that we’ve had.

  2. Megadyptes says:

    I was playing this the other day for a few hours. It depressed the hell out of me.

    • Richie Shoemaker says:

      Not half as depressing as trying to catch a connecting flight from LaGuardia. Those US customs chaps can really ruin a holiday.

      • Salvian says:

        I had a similar experience in Gatwick. My impression is that all Anglophone customs bureaucracies are basically evil.

        • mouton says:

          And now imagine that the East European ones were/are worse. Scary, huh

  3. Bhazor says:

    Brilliant.

    This is how you make a statement with videogames.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Durkonkell says:

    TWO article titles running over onto a two lines in ONE day?

    This is it, people. Seal up your doors and windows, load your weapons if you’ve got them. If you have a shop nearby, now would be a good time to raid them for all the long-lasting food supplies you can get. It’s the apocalypse, all right.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Devan says:

    Thanks, I’ll have to keep my eye on this. I always dislike crossing borders, especially at airports; the suspicion by default, the see-through-your-clothing scanners, the small but ever-present chance that some officer’s having a bad day and decides to ruin yours.
    I guess it’s good to see things from the officer’s perspective too. To me it seems it’s just a poor situation all-round.

    • cfcannon says:

      The see through clothes scanners don’t bug me as much as when the tsa guard feels the need to thoroughly inspect my penis through my pants for two minutes to make sure it isn’t a bomb. Bastard didn’t even finish the job.

  6. MOKKA says:

    Most impressive game I played so far this year.

  7. Kollega says:

    It has been said before that games made by ex-Soviet people and set in Russia or around it are depression simulators with guns. Well, here’s a game only set “or around”, and therefore it’s a depression simulator with guns without guns. Fantastic!

    The point of that post is that i think i’ll be a dissenter – i won’t play this game, and i won’t say it’s great, even if it’s only because what i see around myself is depressing enough. Maybe that’s not a “mature” or “progressive” stance to take, but i prefer games that let me escape my moderately grim reality or take me above it, not plunge me headfirst into it.

  8. yhalothar says:

    Oooh, this invokes a lot of childhood memories…

  9. Zyrxil says:

    I tried it yesterday and it was amazingly effective in what it tries to do. Before long I was memorizing valid Issuing Cities for each regional passport so I could deny or approve them quicker so I could make enough money to pay for rent/heat/food for my family and their Class-8 accommodations. Alternating days without heat or food became a matter of course. The requirements for entry became ever more complex, cutting into my clearance speed and of course salary. Then came the occasional asylum seekers- should I pass them through anyway and incur demerits and docked pay? Who were they to impose such a burden on me? I had to buy medicine for my son! Still, it was somehow enjoyable as a game. I’m looking forward to the full version.

  10. Premium User Badge

    JB says:

    It’s a strong game. I played it twice last night and I think I’ll be playing it again tonight.

    I found it a lot easier second time around but it was still a challenge. My family were certainly a lot better off second time around. I managed to make a lot of cash in the first 2-3 days, so we had heat AND food the whole time, pretty much. My son only got sick once.

    Apparently I’d have made a pretty good border official in ’82. Other than being a 6-year-old.

    • mouton says:

      They key to a good family life is understanding that your beloved only need heat and food every other day.

  11. DonJefe says:

    Just played the demo. A lot of fun. Try it!

  12. Jorum says:

    Not played it yet, but reminds me of Floor 13.
    Which is a game that needs a goddamn remake already.

  13. soldant says:

    I enjoyed this way too much.

  14. Yglorba says:

    The old man is my favorite character.

    *SPOILERS*

    Does anything special happen if you let him through? The second time, I mean; I don’t see how you even could the first time.

    • belgand says:

      I felt upset that I couldn’t have him arrested. Same goes for the people with a sob story, but obviously fake documents. It just feels wrong to let them go with a visa denial rather than arrest them for obviously trying to sneak in.

      Of course, I also wanted to be able to accept bribes, but then arrest the person for attempting to bribe me or just deny them anyway. I’ll never really understand that concept. Just because you bribe someone why on Earth would they ever actually follow through with it? Especially if there isn’t any possibility for future bribes? What would they even say? That their bribe wasn’t being honored?

      • CannedLizard says:

        You seem like a scary person….

        One thing I like about this game is it makes taking a bribe conscionable. You NEED that money, and odds are you don’t believe much in the things you’re enforcing either, so if you have a penalty-free warning available, why not go for it?

  15. belgand says:

    What’s the deal with the last day (in the beta) where you get someone leaving you a note with a name on it and talking about “The Cause” or such? Whenever he shows up his papers are in order and if I try to deny him entry I get docked! It seems like someone I’m supposed to be secretly allowing through.

    That’s the other element that would be interesting. Not just letting people through and taking a penalty, but actively trying to falsify records or otherwise sneak them in, but with much greater consequences if you’re discovered. Possibly also a button or other option to try to solicit a bribe, but with significant consequences if you’re found out. Perhaps some of the people with erroneous papers are themselves secret police trying to test the integrity of the border controls.

    • CannedLizard says:

      Mild spoilers: it’s a test. You have to hand it to the person with that name. Probably in the full game it would be the start of a major sub-plot, like the Secret Masters of Thoth missions in Floor 13, mentioned higher up the comment thread.

  16. Shazbut says:

    This is brilliant

  17. Keroton says:

    +1

    amazing!

  18. Ragnar says:

    I like the premise behind it, and the choices it asks you to make, but boy does it really feel like work after a bit.

    I gave up on it after the – mild spoiler – nude scanner was introduced. Every time I’d get a man, they’d scan completely clean, but I’d get docked for admitted a potential smuggler. /boggle