Papers, Please is a game about beating the system. Or subverting the system. Or submitting to the system. Or maybe ignoring the system. In any approach, it forces the player to consider conflict as a multifaceted condition tied to its narrative and design, and it doesn’t much care if you judge its sum-total as traditionally fun. Papers, Please has something to say, and it makes it very clear at almost every instance.
You play as some guy. His apparent anonymity isn’t a mystery to be unraveled, but rather comes as a gradual understanding of being an easily replicable cog in a very broken machine. Taking place in the fictional Soviet country of Arstotzka in the early 80’s, a lottery has assigned you a job in border security. Anyone can do the job, but you’ve been chosen to do the job and, as far as Papers, Please is concerned, you really have no other option.
Every morning you’ll open your ramshackle booth, someone will walk in and present their papers, and it’s your duty to determine whether or not they qualify to pass into Arstotzka. Does the number on their passport match the number on their entry pass? Is their listed height aligned correctly with their actual height? Mechanically speaking, Papers, Please challenges you with corroborating facts as efficiently and as quickly as possible. Time is money, and the more people you correctly pass or deny, the more cash you’ll haul in at the end of the day. Your income translates to the well being of your family, and bringing in enough cash to cover the rent, pay the heating bill, and provide food is your constant goal.
If you screw up, you don’t get paid – and not getting paid is the worst. If you can’t cover your bills then members of your family may begin to fall ill. Eventually, they will die. Aside from the obvious moral implications, being responsible for the death of your entire family is also a qualification for one of many ways to finish Papers, Please prematurely. The game is somewhat forgiving, you can make a mistake with two applicants per day before you’re fined for it, but given that I averaged around ten people a day, the loss of income from just two applicants, even without being fined, was significant. I grew to loathe the sound of citation printing out after I incorrectly passed or denied an applicant, so much to the point where I was getting considerably upset at myself for screwing another one up every time it happened.
Taking place over (well, up to) thirty-one days, Papers, Please insists on shaking up its rules on a daily basis. New systems are routinely introduced; fingerprinting people with conflicting identification, unlocking a tranquilizer gun with a key to shoot runners, photographing stripped applicants to see if they’re carrying contraband are just a few examples. Likewise, certain stipulations like denying all entrants from a certain country or confiscating passports from anyone from Arstotzka exist to further complicate your job. While Papers, Please can feel a little nitpicky, it’s certainly effective at getting its point across. It feels like compliance is the only option (and subsequently transforms when you realize it isn’t).
What’s interesting is the speed at which Papers, Please transitions the player’s approach from an inarticulate, butterfingery mess into a well-oiled machine. Your work desk, the area where you can drag documents and observe everything, is deliberately small. The accumulation of bullshit in the form of notes, tokens, and other trinkets doesn’t make it any easier. In the beginning I was struggling to make sense of it all, but eventually I developed a fool-proof system. When I opened my day mug-shots of known criminals went on the far right, my keys to unlock my guns were neatly aligned up top, and the 80% of space in the lower left corner was my work area. Passports were always observed first and compared, one at a time, to its corresponding documents. Papers, Please doesn’t suggest you do any of this because, like the poor guy you’re playing as, no one is there to help you and you’re supposed to figure it out on your own.
Papers, Please also briefly turned me into a sociopathic fact-checking machine. Most everyone who I denied entry was utterly clueless as to why. Whether it was a typographical error on one of their documents or complete ignorance over which documents they needed to have, I turned them all away regardless of their plight. I needed to get paid, and to get paid I had to do my job, and doing my job meant zero compromise. When a guard started giving me a bribe/bonus for detaining people, usually a measure reserved for criminals, I started detaining almost everyone when said option appeared. I was ruining their life, but I felt justified because I was (presumably) ensuring a better one for my family members.
Over the course of its days, Papers, Please starts to turn a vicious cycle. You’re looking at crude pictures of naked people to determine if they’re their listed gender or if they’re smuggling in weapons. You’re wondering how you’re supposed to deny someone a passport when you’ve just approved their spouse. You’re double and triple checking everything while the clock is taunting your existence with every tick. Some of the worst, most harrowing situations imaginable are unfolding before your eyes and then you make a decision, it’s wiped away, and you say, “Papers, Please” and the whole process starts over. The oppressive monotony of that statement weighed heavily on my conscience, knowing that, at least in some vague way, this was the kind of stuff that was actually going on in another part of the world around the time I was born.
Figuring out who to trust further complicates matters. You know your government is corrupt and yet you’re seemingly trapped in the confines of its system. How to break out, if you even want to, is offered in bits and pieces. What I can best describe as a rebel faction offers hints and clues, but half the time when I followed their vague orders I screwed up even worse. Additionally those guys seemed to be the ones jumping the fence and blowing themselves up. Were they actually from the same group? I have no idea, and Papers, Please deliberate ambiguity in that matter is part of its implied narrative. There are over thirty possible “endings,” and with a daily save structure that’s experimentation-friendly taking a risk on a particular action doesn’t come with too much consequence.
The low-fidelity aesthetic works in Papers, Please’s favor. The comparably ancient technology you’re operating fits neatly in the time period, as do the abstract mechanics you’re provided with. Most of the game involves clicking to presumably incongruous categories and seeing whether or not they line up. It’s crude, and thanks to the small resolution a little frustrating and clumsy, but that’s also sort of the point. Your job operates under less than ideal circumstances, and whether or not a stunted interface was intended to be part of the experience is inconsequential. It’s supposed to be work, and as is the case with most awful and/or monotonous jobs, work isn’t fun.
Technically speaking, Papers, Please feels more like work and less like fun. There’s a legitimate challenge and meeting or exceeding said challenge can result in a feeling of accomplishment, but Papers, Please seems more interested in conveying an experience than making a game. Noticing yourself treating people like objects under an increasingly complicated rule set creates unexpected irritability and occasional hostility, and becoming aware of those uncomfortable circumstances is one of the game’s best tricks. After eight hours and finally reaching an objective end point, I doubt I’ll fish around for any more endings, but it’s an experience I’ll remember and keep with me for some time. Whether I care to or not.