Papers, Please is one of the most fascinating games I have ever played, and also one of the most boring. Confused? So was I. The indie arthouse PC game casts you as an inspection agent on the border of a fictional Eastern Bloc country in 1982, checking the documentation of immigrants as they attempt to enter your home nation. Does their picture match their appearance? Has their passport expired? Is the issuing city a legitimate one? These are the things you have to check before giving the green stamp to welcome them, or the red to reject. It’s unsurprisingly tedious, but also very compelling. There’s an aspect of puzzle solving here, of detective work, that drives you to keep playing.
The game certainly doesn’t use the graphics or the sound to try and jazz up the gameplay. The sound primarily consists of your stamp on documents, the warble of your speaker as you call for the next immigrant. The graphics are perfect for the setting, cold and utilitarian, with a retro feel suited for the time period. There’s some great character artwork here if you take the time to really look at it, but you’ll be kept so busy you might not get the chance.
You get paid for every immigrant you deal with, a grand total of five credits per person. But back at home you have your family to support. This includes paying the rent, keeping your Class 8 dwelling heated and putting food on the table. You’ll quickly find that you need to deal with people as quickly as possible to make enough credits to survive. But if you let someone cross the border that you shouldn’t, or send someone away who should have been allowed in, you’ll receive citations and be fined for your negligence. The game ramps up the difficulty on a very regular basis, giving you more documentation to check and more rules to enforce. This creates a precarious balancing act between working quickly to make enough money, being careful so that you don’t get fined and the tedium of your job causing your concentration to slip.
I know I keep referencing that this game is boring – because it is – but there’s something fascinating about that. While playing the game for this review my girlfriend asked if she could have a go because it looked so boring. She wanted to see if it really was as dull as it looked, and she quickly decided it was, but I couldn’t get her to stop playing. This mirrored my own experience, but she was able to describe it perfectly. Papers, Please is mind-numbingly addictive. But aside from the gameplay being somehow both dull and fun at the same time, there’s more. The immigrants you deal with often have stories to tell, compelling reasons why you should let them in even if their paperwork is incorrect. Their husband was in the line before them, and you’ve already let him through. Can you bring yourself to separate them forever? Dilemma’s like this are common in the Story Mode, achieving with simplistic ease what so many triple A titles aim for and fall short of – a true morality system and player choice with consequence. How you choose to handle these situations is entirely up to you – there is no wrong choice. Helping people when you shouldn’t usually results in a citation, and thus a loss of credits. But you may also receive gifts or bribes from those you’ve helped, balancing the scale.
The focus of the story is open to interpretation. It could be that the story is about your, the protagonists, struggles to provide for his family and remain sane in a soul destroying job. Or we may be observing a multitude of stories, the lives of the people who pass through our point of the border. It could be argued that we’re observing the country as a whole, an examination of bureaucracy and the loss of the human element. All of the above? I think so. The story mode comes with twenty different endings, which is fairly impressive. And even should you discover them all there’s also an “Endless Mode” so you never have to stop living the dream of stamping passports.
I could talk (and write) about this game for hours – for a game made by one person it’s an astounding accomplishment. It’s an astounding accomplishment in its own right, that a subject matter and setting so implausibly bland manages to be as uninteresting as you’d expect but also incredibly engaging. I can’t guarantee that you’ll enjoy Papers, Please but you’ll certainly think as a result of it. As a community gamers are constantly arguing the virtues of video games as an art form the same as any other. If we accept that video games are, or at least have the potential to be, art then we have to think about what this means for an industry firmly entrenched in entertainment. While studying media at university one of the things that stuck with me was the notion that art, real art, didn’t need to be entertaining. It didn’t need to make you happy, it just had to have an effect on you. Papers, Please isn’t going to be your next favourite game but it will be one of the most interesting you ever play. There are plenty of games where you play as the dedicated soldier, the gallant knight or the charming rogue. Games where you run border control of a fictional Eastern European country in 1982? There’s only one of those (I will eat my hard drive if I’m wrong). It’s called Papers, Please and it’s worth your time if for no other reason than that you’ll never play another game like it.
Unless there’s a sequel.