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Wot I Think: Papers, Please

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Papers, Please is a pretty effective way of having you take a look around yourself, and feel damned grateful for what you’ve got. Unless you’re reading this in a country for which the dystopian themes of Papers Please’s oppressive border controls and poverty-stricken workers are all too familiar, in which case please have some of my Western guilt. You’re a border guard, and your job is to either let or not let people through. And that really is it. Which makes it kind of weird that it’s so utterly compelling that I’ve overworked today by three hours so far, and don’t seem to be stopping. Here’s wot I think:

Set in 1982, in the fictional Soviet-like nation of Arstotzka, this is a game of bureaucracy, cruelty and poverty. And stamps. And paperwork. And secret underground operatives who woo you into their dangerous world of spies. Although only via paperwork. Its lofi graphics and static setting join its focus on mundanity and repetition under pressure to suggest something that sounds about as far away from “game” as you might imagine. And yet remains an engrossing, creeping affair, almost rogue-like in its grip on you to last longer, work faster, abandon principles more freely, and compromise integrity with ever-more consummate ease.

You play in days, each racing past at a terrifying rate. You’re paid per person processed, so speed is essential if you’re going to be able to keep your extended family safe under your roof, with food, heat and medicine, and maybe even birthday presents. But as each day passes, the bureaucracy grows, the required observation and effort on your part increases, and the complexity of correctly scrutinising the papers of every entrant to the country becomes always more elaborate. It is, in short, difficult.

A couple of weeks in, if you manage to keep your job for that long, and indeed keep your family alive, things might go like this: Man arrives, offers his passport, entry permit, work pass and identity supplement. You need to check his name against the permit and work order, then his passport number against the permit, along with the expiry dates for all four against today’s date. And his photo with his face, obviously. And his gender – if that doesn’t look like it matches up, it’s time for a scan, which will show him or her naked. Check his weight and height against the measurements listed on the ID supplement, as well as the short description listed there. Then you need to make sure the reason for entering and duration he states matches up to those listed in the paperwork, spot if his date of birth is a real date, check that the issuing town listed on the passport really issues passports according to your rulebook, and that the symbols on everything match up to the official ones. Oh, and make sure his face is not on that day’s Most Wanted list, and ensure he’s not someone you’re supposed to illegally let through if you’re willingly helping the secretive organisation.

For each person.

And if you’re not processing around eight or so in the extremely brief days, you’re in trouble. And you’re definitely in trouble if a terrorist breaks through and causes the whole place to be shut down early. No savings? No food that night.

So why is this interesting, even entertaining? It’s partly just down to the very basics of puzzles. From spot-the-difference to intricate logic problems, such data matching is an intrinsically satisfying process. Noticing an anomaly triggers a reward mechanism in your brain, and you feel on top of things. And it’s partly down to the desire to find out what’s going to happen next, what are these illicit actions gaining you, what will change in the relations between Arstotzka and its neighbours? Will your son survive his illness to see his next birthday?

It’s also deeply grim. Papers Please explores that intriguing space between what you’ll do to see a narrative progress, and what you’re just too uncomfortable to do even in fiction. Will you allow a resident trafficker back into the country, after an appeal from a girl who knows he plans to enslave her into prostitution? No? Will you do it because if you don’t it will cost you 5 moneys in fines, and you won’t be able to feed your children as a result? When you’ve got the choice between sending someone away with their faked documentation, or having them arrested by your clearly horrific government, which way will you go? And is it the same way once a guard offers to cut you in on the profits of detaining more people, such that you can put the heating on that night?

It’s all excellently put together, perfectly paced, and ridiculously gripping for something that is, after all, paperwork. But it’s not until you play a second time that you realise the game’s shortcomings.

And play a second time you’ll want to, because of that not-quite-rogue-like element. Fail and you’ll know there was so much further to get, and while the game lets you pick up from any of the previous days, there’s a good chance you’ll be in so deep a hole that you’ll prefer to take another run at it from the start. Do this, and you discover just how much is – seemingly needlessly – scripted. While most of the people who walk through your booth are randomised, their discrepancies different each time through, a surprising number of the plotted encounters are discovered to be fixed in position. The same person, on the same day, with the same note, for the same character, at the same time.

It seems odd that these important plot points (which are removed entirely if you’d prefer to play the high-score driven Endless mode instead) couldn’t be slightly randomised themselves. Appear on a day either side, or feature different names to look out for. The amusing gentleman who attempts to get through with a hand-drawn passport has his own cute little arc, but it’s the same arc each time, on the same days, in the same way.

It’s not a massively serious issue, and being able to pick up after the first week or two means cutting out repeating a lot of it, but it really does seem like a missed opportunity to mix things up a little and create something more desirably replayable.

At £7, Papers, Please is unquestionably something unique. (Queue comment about the Amstrad CPC game that came out only in Cyprus.) It is, undeniably, a paperwork sim. And perhaps that’s enough to put some off it entirely. But it’s definitely worth getting past that (otherwise entirely sensible) prejudice in this case. It’s peculiarly engrossing, darkly ominous, and a fascinating exploration of morality versus progress. And you get to ker-chunk the big DENIED stamp, and that’s always fun.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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