Papers, Please is yet another example of why the widespread notion that games “should first and foremost just be fun” is not only antiquated, but categorically false. Is a game that’s not “fun” bad? Of course not, we just need to expand our vocabularies a bit. Because Papers, Please simply isn’t fun at all and yet it’s a genuinely good game.
Papers, Please is a bureaucratic simulation game in which the player takes over the role of a customs official of a pseudo Eastern Bloc country at the end of 1982. After a long time, the borders are open once more and it is your job to make sure that the flood of people pouring in have all the necessary documents. Not only that, but you need to make sure that the passports haven’t expired, that the information provided checks out across multiple documents and so on. Rules change regularly due to domestic and international events such as terrorist attacks and disease outbreaks which constantly keeps you on your toes. You will also be provided with bulletins informing you about wanted criminals.
It is as laborious, mundane and monotonous as it sounds. And yet it’s incredibly compelling due to everything around it. You want to do a good job because you get financially penalized for multiple mistakes. Also, the more people you process, the more money you get. And you need that money because your family depends on you for rent, heating and food. But there are desperate people with insufficient or forged documents begging you to let them pass for various reasons. Some people will try to bribe you. Rebel organizations trying to bring down the government will seek your aid. All the while the government will be bearing down on you to do your job in accordance to the strict, but not always fair, rules.
And that’s what’s so brilliant about Papers, Please. You really get a feel of what it’s like, you get into the role and you start to think as if you’re really there and not just playing a game. Why wouldn’t I want to help these guys out? What has my government done for me aside from oppressing and threatening me? But what about my family? What will happen to them? So you juggle all of these thoughts and simply try to do what you feel is best in each particular situation. But there’s simply no way to do everything right, something always has to give.
You go through the story campaign day by day. There are 31 full days to play. To illustrate the many different ways your choices impact the game is the fact that the game has 20 different endings that can occur during various situations within that period. While the game does a really good job to convey its grim and bleak mood, the writing leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the dialogue is just unconvincing and unnatural. Also, for some reason, the game uses a bit of Soviet-esque broken English, but at the same time it uses some silly and very American colloquialisms. Apart from the story mode, there’s also the endless mode which you unlock when you get a certain ending, but by the time that you’ve seen most of what the story has to offer, chances are slim that you’ll be interested in more.
Papers, Please is a brave and wholly original game that deliberately offers mundane gameplay and wraps it up into a surprisingly compelling and profoundly affecting whole.