Walk to work.
Without fail, that is how every day begins in the self-proclaimed “dystopian document thriller” game Papers, Please. No matter how wonderful or terrible you think your life is, you can count on walking to work and beginning your day at the inspection station.
Papers, Please has you playing the role of an immigration inspector at a border crossing. It is your job to ensure that only the properly credentialed citizens and visitors are allowed through, despite a ceaseless cavalcade of improperly documented persons arriving at your inspection booth, both due to human error and nefarious intentions.
While the premise might sound like the glorification of the most mundane of stuffy job simulation money can buy, Papers, Please somehow uses this as a vehicle to thrust you into a surprisingly intense experience that will challenge your morals and cognitive abilities at every turn. Every image, sound and piece of dialogue in the game is oozing a distinctly 1980s European communist nightmare vibe that only deepens the disdain you inevitably have for your situation and yourself as you begin making increasingly difficult choices to survive another day in the communist state of Arstotzka.
Developer: Lucas Pope
Rhys brings you Just The Tip of Papers, Please.
“Dystopia” is a word we see thrown around a lot in pop culture now, and we usually immediately have an idea of what that looks like, but Papers, Please is the first game that really made me think about what living in “dystopia” might actually feel like, and it’s hardly the theme park some films and games may have you imagine it to be.
As a citizen of Arstotzka, there is more to life than stamping passports. It is your responsibility to take care of your family and manage your finances, ensuring that the rent and utilities are paid and that everyone has enough food to eat. This is made more difficult with various surprise circumstances the game throws at you in addition to being penalized for various on-the-job mistakes that you inevitably make. Papers, Please has an uncanny ability to make you hate the system you live under in the game and then hate yourself even more for wittingly choosing to play into it out of sheer need. For example, during my first play through, there reached a point where I had deluded myself into thinking that spending funds to upgrade my capabilities at work was a higher priority than providing my virtual wife with the medicine she needed. I wanted to do a better job because I believed that the very system that was keeping me down would eventually (and miraculously) provide an escape.
It is also not uncommon to find yourself feeling bad about making people’s lives miserable on the job out of a need to follow the rules.
Life in Arstotzka has a way of making you feel that it is OK to tell yourself everything is glorious and wonderful and to keep looking forward even when you know that there are few ways life could be worse.
Papers, Please by concept is a repetitive game to play. Fortunately, every time you think the game is going to begin to feel tiresome, an interesting new mechanic or challenge is thrown at you or new set of rules that changes the rhythm of the game in a big way. A steady trickle of humour and intriguing story pieces also help to keep you curious and playing.
You can play through a story mode with several different possible endings or an “endless mode” that has you seeing how long you can serve Arstotzka before losing your mind or failing terribly. Whether your draw is fun artwork and a closeted obsession with retro-dystopian escapism or innovative indie games with modest prices and good replay value, Papers, Please is certainly a joy worth your time.
As an aside, I wonder if all those hours spent trying to find Carmen Sandiego as a youngster could have been made easier had Arstotzka’s tough immigration inspectors worked some of the borders she passed through…