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.