Created in 2013 by Lucas Pope (Twitter: @dukope ) and recently greenlit on Steam, Papers, Please is described as “A Dystopian Document Thriller”. Somehow it lives up to AND blatantly defies this lofty lead-in and relatively accurately reflects what I imagine an immigration pencil-pusher’s day to day life is like.
You start off winning the job lottery and are sent to the border city of Grestin, between your current residence of Arstotzka and the neighboring country of Kolechia. Your task is separating the legitimate entrants from those who intend to cause trouble in Arstotzka. Armed with only your eyes and wits, you have to read through passports, ID cards, work visas and many, many other forms of paperwork to fish out discrepancies in order to prevent the troublemakers from entering. (As a simple example, you might reject a man’s attempted entry because his passport has expired as evidenced by the date on the passport vs. the date on your clock.)
…Notice how i just referred to those who were rejected as “troublemakers”. Obviously not all of them intend to do harm in Arstotzka, and I could have easily edited that nonsensical statement out but I left it in for a very simple purpose: such is the dystopia created by the game’s music, visuals and atmosphere that I was subconsciously sucked into the bureaucracy of it all. People who don’t have their paperwork in order aren’t people who made mistakes (or even just innocents that fell victim to a failure of the bureaucracy in the event of a typographical error!), they aren’t even something as simple as “fictional video game characters”; they’re nuisances, troublemakers, dangerous, need to be eliminated from consideration. The game’s audio and visual aspects are reminiscent of the NES era, but they do their job with the same eerie efficiency I found myself trying to emulate as I played.
Why is Papers, Please fun? To be honest, it’s…not. It’s something entirely different from fun, something engrossing and engaging, such that you’ll spend hours in it without realizing it. You’ll scour each piece of paperwork once, twice, three times over, looking for mistakes. You’ll feel the moral quandary when someone whose credentials really don’t warrant entry gives you an impassioned plea, begging for passage. You’ll feel equally uneasy when some of the many story elements get involved, providing a nice counterbalance to the cold, calculating job presented before you. A few recurring characters enter and exit your small booth, and each time it’s up to you to decide whether what’s right by the book is right by your own moral code (as well as the reverse). Through it all you’ll decide whether your family eats or has heat each evening, and certain events pop up during the year that eat further into your already heavily limited funds. If it were a movie, Papers, Please would win the award for Best Drama. It’s not there to be fun and entertaining; you’re there for the story, the tugging on of emotions, and the experience. Papers, Please is certainly an experience, one I’d highly recommend.