Have You Played… Papers, Please?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.

A lot has been written about Papers, Please [official site] and its political subject matter. It feels like not quite so much has been written about how fun it is to be border control agent in a totalitarian state.

This isn’t some miserabilist piece of neorealism your teacher makes you watch in history class. Papers, Please is an entertaining game about information; discovering it, retaining it, and applying it in a way that makes you feel clever when you get it right. There’s satisfaction to be had in studying the documents you’re handed, in questioning the people outside your booth, and in catching them in a lie.

The metagame, which encourages you to balance success with deliberate failure in order to earn enough money to feed your unseen family, ramps up the tension and is, yes, an ethically interesting quandary. But you’ll get the point pretty quickly. What makes me return to Papers, Please – and what makes me glad there’s an endless mode – is the simple pleasure of handling documents, scanning rules, and pressing chunky interface buttons when I’ve made my mind up.

41 Comments

  1. Pazguato says:

    More artistic experiment than a game. I was really disappointed after all the raving reviews.

    • Pazguato says:

      Oh, and I had no fun at all. But maybe is just me.

    • Jeroen D Stout says:

      I’m increasingly wondering whether anything is a game, these days, because almost everything now is said to clearly not be one.

      • king0zymandias says:

        Whenever a particular title generates these types of semantic debates, what I take away from it is that there is a large possibility that it’s doing some interesting things that might appeal to me. It’s mainly because I am completely bored of all the gamey things and mechanics that constitutes “real games”, so anything that deviates from the expected norms so significantly that gamers refuse to even categorize it as a game will always have my attention. Call it whatever you like, it’s irrelevant.

    • Baffle Mint says:

      I legitimately don’t understand why this isn’t a game.

      I mean, for something like “The Stanley Parable” I kind of get why people say that, but this is a game where you have to do a number of picture matching puzzles in a set time limit, with the complexity of the puzzles increasing while the time limit remains steady. It has puzzles; It has a gradually increasing difficulty; It has a lose condition; it rewards you with more cash for doing well.

      It may not be fun to you, but it’s quite clearly a game in any kind of mainstream definition of the term.

      • Pazguato says:

        You said it: It is not a game because it is not fun. To me at least.

        • Llewyn says:

          Right, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up, thank you. I tried COD:MW a few years ago and at least now I know that I didn’t enjoy it because it isn’t a game. NFS Shift wasn’t a game either.

          • Pazguato says:

            At least these games tried to bu fun and failed, Papers don’t want you to enjoy, just to suffer its tedious gameplay to learn… something about life?

          • Stellar Duck says:

            I found the core loop of Papers, Please to be hugely satisfying and also rather fun, despite the grim trappings.

            Modern Warfare on the other hand was 4 hours of suffering for me and I very much don’t understand how anyone could find something so dire fun.

            And yet I don’t claim that they’re not games.

            Fun is an absolutely useless metric to use for anything.

    • MondSemmel says:

      Something doesn’t need to be fun to be a game. Forget “the tired debate about art games”; think about horror games! Those don’t *want* to be fun in the traditional sense. Same with Papers, Please. It’s an utterly exhausting experience, but that’s part of its appeal. You could also consider it a role-playing game: it’s a game about playing a role. And if living that role would be no fun, neither should the game be.

      (But that you didn’t realize you wouldn’t have fun with the game, given its marketing, frankly surprises me. The game’s presentation isn’t exactly subtle.)

  2. Chirez says:

    It is a constant source of amazement to me that people can see games so differently.
    I appreciated Papers Please, and I find it interesting, but at no point have I ever considered it ‘fun’.
    To play it well I would have to memorise a significant amount of documentation, and then apply that remembered knowledge consistently, a task I have little or no desire to complete. Checking every thing, every time is far too slow and before long renders the game unplayable for me.
    Perhaps I just don’t have much time for games I am inevitably going to lose.

    • Pazguato says:

      Agreed. It’s as tedious as to be an immigration inspector comparing documents.

      • king0zymandias says:

        I find shooting things in the face indiscriminately for hours and hours very tedious. So this game came as a very pleasant surprise. Just like Stanely Parable and Brothers.

        • Dare_Wreck says:

          Well, I loved the Stanley Parable, but also really disliked Papers, Please because of its tedious gameplay. Chirez perfectly summed up my feelings on it. I’m glad games like this exist, but I couldn’t stand playing it more than an hour or so because I found it absolutely no fun at all.

  3. Cinek says:

    Well… it felt like a more elaborate game of memory. To a degree it was enjoyable, but… I burned out relatively quickly. IMHO that game gets more praise than it deserves. But it’s just me.

  4. Risingson says:

    I played it, and on one of the day iterations I thought to myself “enough”. Not enough rewards for such a repetitive and annoying gameplay.

  5. slerbal says:

    Though it appears I am swimming against the tide of the comments above me: I really enjoyed Papers, Please. I thought it was well crafted and with a delightfully dark message. The tension in trying to get by without either falling foul of the government, the rebels or losing your family was very nicely pitched.

    The actions themselves were fine, and were like a million other games I’ve played ans certainly more fun than most crafting.

    I only played Papers, Please for a few hours but I certainly got good value for my money and would happily buy it again.

    • tsubaki says:

      I was about to say something similar.

      Papers, Please was my GOTY. I thought it very poignant with the moral decisions/consequences that you face, and how many of your choices were not so black and white.

      I guess not everyone wants a “immigration inspector sim”, but in terms of gameplay, I actually enjoyed how they varied what you look for every couple days. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but oh was it mine.

    • SMGreer says:

      Well I too thought it was ruddy excellent. One of the best games I’ve ever played. The marriage of taxing mechanics with ambiguous moral choices felt like a real test of my fortitude. Loads of little stories told within it too, by recurring characters and the follow-up newspaper.

      It helps that the presentation and tone were spot on too. A real special game and one I enjoyed immensely, even as it pushed me into some uncomfortable places.

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      Andy_Panthro says:

      I agree! I thought it was great. Played through it a few times, to try and get different endings.

  6. cristoffson says:

    This is one of my favorite games. I don’t know if it was particularly fun (as fun as something like Kafka) but it was really interesting and kept me hooked through to the end. Loved the idea of experiencing a narrative through the repetition of a menial task. There was enough variation (especially in later stages) to avoid boredom. And what I loved about it is that story choices are presented in such a natural, non highlighted way. They seem like every other choice in the game, and are made through the regular systems of gameplay. You don’t realice you’re making a special choice, and I guess that’s how it works in everyday life.
    But I also understand potential criticism, because it’s a game of such repetitive presentation and gameplay. So it could go both ways depending on mood and taste. I’ve been meaning to replay it but am afraid of hating it the second time through, once the novelty has worn off.

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      X_kot says:

      Your parallel with Kafka is apt, I think. Some people don’t enjoy reading existential books that focus on life’s mundane cruelties; to them, I would recommend Cook, Serve, Delicious, which dresses its mechanics in the friendlier guise of running a restaurant. For those who do, however, there are games like Papers Please and Cart Life, which require a bit darker humor to savor the narrative woven throughout the grinding repetition.

      • Risingson says:

        I wonder what this game has to do with existential novels or kafka. It is not a matter of topic.

        • king0zymandias says:

          I think what’s being said here is that what is considered entertaining is completely subjective and varies wildly from person to person. And that happiness and joy is only a very small part of the totality of emotions human beings are capable of experiencing. Which is why there are many great works of literature and film that can be initially very difficult to read or watch, because they are not interested in providing you with instant gratification, however if you persevere they can provide a more intense kind of satisfaction that can only come from knowing that you have just experienced something on a very personal level so intensely that it’s almost a spiritual journey. Even if the subject matter of the work makes you sad or disgusts you, you were still stimulated intellectually and emotionally.

          For me examples of this include- Grave of the Fireflies, Eraserhead, works of Borges, works of Kubrick and such. Paper please is similar in the sense that it intentionally creates a repetitive and boring gameplay-loop, which emphasizes the banality and insignificance of human existence in a bureaucratic and oppressive society. It explores how evil is mostly banal, how given power, no matter how little, people will always abuse it, even everyday Joe. So playing the game, the act of checking the papers might not be fun, but it doesn’t really have to be. It’s not supposed to be.

          • draglikepull says:

            Yup. Papers, Please isn’t “fun”, but there are lots of worthwhile things that aren’t fun. It was certainly an engaging and compelling experience.

          • Risingson says:

            “Which is why there are many great works of literature and film that can be initially very difficult to read or watch, because they are not interested in providing you with instant gratification”

            No, you started to be wrong just at this part :) First, one thing: you are not better for appreciating Kubrick, Borges, Grave of the Fireflies or any of those other examples. Second: you cannot put all these examples in the same box, when they are about different things and they have different goals. It’s like you consider things “intelligent and hard” or “easy and fun”, when the line is not there: most of the horror movies, for example, are great pieces of analysis for the society they reflected. Third: what matters is not the attempt (well, you can thank the attempt), but the results. To me, subjective, personal opinion, “clockwork orange” the movie is extremely flawed because its message of the violence applied by the bourgeoisie to the low classes using arts and pop culture is too all over the place (you cannot put Rossinni in the same place as Brutalism and just get away with it).

            And “Papers Please” is not deep. It just uses repetition as a very easy resort to make you think, something that most of the modern indie games abuse and, yes, get away with it with people writing about Kubrick, Grave of the Fireflies or things that makes them feel intelligent. People that say “I don’t get it” when they don’t understand a movie. People that need a manual, guidelines, patterns to understand what they are playing, watching, reading, instead of letting the piece speak on its own. “2001 is a philosophical study about humanity”. “Casablanca is the epitome of love stories”. “Citizen Kane is important because of its innovations to narrative”. 101s.

            End of rant. You are not the target of this one, but I see a pattern of “The Intelligent People’s Canon” that really gets on my nerves. Kubrick did not know or want to do a western, which tells me that he was not that intelligent, and he could not do a genre movie without telling everyone, in each frame, that he was much more intelligent than the genre and he was above it. I appreciate him anyway. “Heidi”, on the other side, is much richer and deeper than any other Takahata stuff, always imho.

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          X_kot says:

          @Risingson

          If you haven’t already, read The Trial, and then tell me that the world of Papers Please doesn’t resemble it.

  7. mashkeyboardgetusername says:

    Didn’t work for me. The fact the game knew who shouldn’t be let in and gave me a ticket instantly if I got it wrong spoiled it for me. It meant I never felt like roleplaying and maybe letting someone through I shouldn’t or rushing and not checking properly at the end of a day because there was no way of getting away with it. It might as well have been scoring me with a points system rather than cash at that point.

    And at the end of the day boring bureaucracy and paperwork are boring, so without the roleplaying there was nothing there for me.

    • Baffle Mint says:

      I think that’s working as designed, though.

      Basically, as I recall you have two warnings a day before they start fining you, and later there are some “alternative” means of generating income, so the idea is to put you in a constrained spot. If you’ve had a good day, you can exercise some authority, either letting in some desperate political refugee or being a petty tyrant and refusing entry to some schmoe who insults your child’s drawing, and it won’t lose you the game.

      If you’ve made a lot of mistakes, then suddenly you have skin in the game; helping a desperate refugee could mean not feeding your family.

      But both in terms of storytelling and game design, Papers, Please wants you to see the ability to exercise your own authority as a rare reward which must be earned and spent extremely carefully.

  8. Ejia says:

    It was much too stressful for me. I’m not fond of spot the difference type games, anyway.

  9. slartibartfast says:

    Well as a decision make for DWP this was far too much of a busman’s holiday for me and was promptly uninstalled

  10. bl4ckrider says:

    I thought it was one of the greatest gaming experiences I’ve had in a long time. I usually don’t care for story in games but this one made me feel and understand what it is like to work under but also for such a tyranny.

    It is not about the gameplay but about the things that happen when you are not checking documents, when people tell you their story in one or two sentences and you have no way to trust them but need to make a decision.

    It is also the only game I have played that has a working morality system. Usually in games you can choose the good or the bad path and either way you will benefit (harvest the little sisters and you will get their magic juice or save them and they will point you to good stuff – or the outcome is random and a matter of chance).

    In Papers Please doing good things to people does not promise any reward, it is even dangerous if you have to accept a citation that could risk your or your family’s livelihood. You do it, because you feel it’s the right thing to do. There is no reward but appraisal from your conscience (which doesn’t buy anything).

    I loved it.

    • Baffle Mint says:

      My problem is that it doesn’t have anything going in the opposite direction: There’s never any feeling of complicity in the immoral choices you make.

      You can decide not to collaborate with the regime at all; but that means game over.

      In order to play the game I spent 4 bucks on, I have to work that border crossing, and in order to not get a game over, I have to do a pretty good job. The moral decisions I do make are, as you point out, mainly just guesswork, snap decisions on whether to trust these emotionless video game sprites and their (let’s face it, kind of trite) stories.

      Almost all of the questionable behavior I engaged in in the game was with the knowledge that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing if I did anything else; all of the good behavior was me getting away with as much as I could, having no real idea what would happen.

      Basically, to me a major component to morality is that a moral decision is a choice, which is made with some knowledge of the possible consequences. What I would really like to see is a video game that gives me a feeling of “Damn it, in hindsight I could’ve handled that a lot better”, and usually what I feel is ‘Well, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances.”

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        X_kot says:

        usually what I feel is ‘Well, I did the only thing I could under the circumstances.”

        That sounds very similar to what people say when defending their complicity in programs that contribute to awful things: they have a mortgage to pay, they have a family to take care of, they were just following orders. The game takes a lot of liberties and denies you the freedom to attempt your own plans of sabotage, but it does establish a good simulacrum of how powerless an individual can be in the face of an oppressive regime.

  11. Eight Rooks says:

    Never played it and I probably never will – I can’t stand the art design – but I’m very happy it exists and found an appreciative audience. Sure, it’s (probably) not “fun”, but then games don’t always have to be (regardless of what Satoru Iwata might have said, RIP). There should always be games being made that are brightly coloured, cheery “fun” devoid of consequence or overt morality, but they shouldn’t be the only option, and the success of Papers suggests I’m not alone in thinking that.

  12. TechnicalBen says:

    No [Yes].

    In that, I played the free alpha. I think, I think I do, do have it, from a Humble Bundle.

    However, just thinking about playing it gives me cold sweats and the shivers. Why? It’s too much like real work and an old job. Thankfully no one’s lives were at risk, but it was a stressful ID checking and paperwork environment.

    Perhaps when I’m more relaxed and less stressed I can go back and give it a go.

    PS, that and in having Dyslexia this is a “world is ending panic” kind of game as I find it near impossible to actually succeed. :(

    • alms says:

      Probably worth mentioning that there is plenty of humor in the game. Don’t be scared by the naysayers

  13. Karel Crombecq says:

    Easily my favourite game of the last couple of years. This is the perfect package of thought-provoking subject matter, while still being very much a fun game in and of itself. Brilliant.

  14. Mr Coot says:

    I enjoyed the concept and will re-visit the game, but I think I am not physically coordinated enough for it. lol!

  15. Wetcoaster says:

    Having been employed in a position that involved scanning and checking shipping documents, Papers, Please was entirely too uncomfortably reminiscent of my (now previous) day job