GAME REVIEW: Papers, Please

paperspleaselogoAdmin can be boring. Who would want to sit somewhere for hours on end, shuffling pieces of paper from one pile to another, acting on stuff that needs it and discarding the sheets that have no use? I would imagine that the more meaning the bits of paper have, the more interesting the job might be. Sorting quotas for dung sales people probably wouldn’t be as interesting as processing MI5’s correspondence. Is there a game to be found in admin? Papers, Please seems to think so, and I’d have to agree.

Papers, Please is a small indie game by 3909. And it is small! Around 35MB to download, which was quite a refreshing change from the multi-gig AAA monsters that you can buy and download from places like Steam. You see? I’m getting lost in the details already. Papers, Please does that to someone who has spent more than a few hours in its dreary little world.

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You “win” the job of immigration inspector on the borders of the communist state of Arstotzka. Your job is to inspect the documentation of the people passing through your little booth, mulling over all of the available information and deciding whether to stamp their passport with “Denied” or “Approved”. You are then rewarded with their little sprite strolling into Arstotzka, or dejectedly shuffling off the other way.

The game takes place in chunks of time, days if you will. On the first day, you merely have to deny entry to all foreigners. The next day rolls around and there is a new directive. They are now allowed in, but they must have a proper pass. The third day, something else is added, and so on. The game adds things in a sensible way, but it can be very hard to keep track initially, especially as your short shift ticks away moment by moment. You have to check that the person looks like their passport photo, that their documents haven’t expired, that the issuing city printed onto them is valid, and so on. You are given a rulebook to aid you, which is also used to point out the mismatched information to the unlucky immigrant, which then allows you to question them, search them or detain them, depending on the severity of the mismatch. Familiarity with the game does help after a while, and you will soon find yourself adopting your own system of checking that covers all of the bases. Or so you might think.

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If you admit the wrong people, or make a mistake, a little printout judders into view at the bottom of your screen that tells you what you did wrong and possibly fining you. The number of times I let someone through because I thought they were safe to allow in, and that little thing buzzed into life became as much a stress as the time limit and your money situation. Oh yes the money situation. You don’t have much, and you have a family who needs it. At the end of each day, you get a breakdown of what you earned, and what the bills you need to pay are. This sometimes leaves you with the hard decision of whether you will pay the heating bill or get your Son the medicine that he needs. Too many fines, and you won’t have anything to give, and you get to slowly see the little info boxes accrue the status of death.

So is there a game here? I can fully understand some people reading this and thinking that it sounds too much like work. Yes, it can be, but on the other hand, it’s like an adult version of Guess-Who, but with far more options than “Is he wearing a hat?” or “Is she blonde?”. It becomes more and more satisfying to juggle all of the information you need to look at, and an added layer of goodness is watching the story of the game play out. Terrorists attack the border, spys seek admittance, and you get given strange encoded messages to pass on or hold on to. I think this all adds up to making the game fascinating, in a grim, poverty line living kind of way.

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Visually, the game works. It looks like something that my old Amiga 500 would manage without breaking a sweat, but that is no bad thing. The sound-scheme is also pretty rough, but again, adds to the bleakness of the game. Every time you click the top of your booth to call the next person forward, a gruff foreign voice shouts gibberish over the tannoy, the distortion making the speech sound much more severe.

I reviewed the PC version of the game from Steam, but there was news a while ago of the game possibly coming out on tablets. That would address my one complaint about the game, which is the fiddlyness of moving things around. You have so much stuff to deal with, and must place the passport just so under the stamps to stamp them in the correct place. You feel you are just dragging and clicking the whole time. I know the same could be said of any game on the PC, but you really become aware of it in Papers, Please. I would imagine a touch interface would alleviate this a little, and make the game seem a little more realistic, in so far as using your fingers to slide papers around on a desk is more natural than a mouse. On the other hand, the slowness of the mouse adds to the stress the game causes with its time limit, so it could go either way really.

Papers, Please is a great little game and something truly different to any other game that I have played. It is also a pretty cheap purchase and comes up on sale quite often, so has a low barrier to entry. As an added enticement, once you have reached a certain distance in the Story mode, an Endless mode unlocks which creates a random flow of travellers and scores you on various criteria such as accuracy and speed. This adds a great amount of replay value to the game and makes it an even more alluring proposition. Give it a go and I think you might like it.

Papers, Please is available for PC and Mac, and can be purchased from the official website here, and also from various online distribution stores such as Steam and GoG.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Casey Douglass

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