Papers, Please is a difficult game to describe. There’s no real action to speak of, no acts of heroism, no antagonist, yet it is still an engaging experience that might make you ask questions of yourself that you don’t want to answer.
You will need to show your passport to proceed. Glory to Arstotzka.
Papers, Please is an Eastern Block bureaucracy simulator, set in the fictional nation of Arstotzka. That might sound like the driest possible setting for a game, so it’s impressive then that Dukope has made such an interesting game out of it.
As the game opens you learn that you have ‘won’ this new border control position as part of a lottery. You and your family has been moved into a Class-8 apartment, and as the sole breadwinner in the household it is up to you to do the job to the best of your ability, lest one of your loved ones – or your mother-in-law – gets cold, sick, hungry or dead.
The job involves checking the passports and other papers of the people trying to cross the border. You’re looking for discrepancies that could indicate forgeries and other criminal activities, and simply maintaining the iron will of the bureaucratic powers that be. In what seems like an accurate representation of the USSR during the Cold War, the procedures governing entry into Arstotzka change every day, with new paperwork requirements and stricter rules effecting the would-be visitors, and greater powers being passed down to help you screen out the undesirables.
This is where things get interesting. The more paperwork you need to check, the more people you have to fingerprint or put through the full-body scanner, the fewer people you can process. The fewer people you process, the less you get paid; the less you get paid the harder it is to take care of the freeloaders waiting for you at home. On the flipside – if you work too fast and make too many mistakes your pay gets docked.
The game becomes a balancing act between accuracy and brevity where you’ll gleefully slam the DENIED stamp every chance you get and curse under your breath any time a citation comes across your desk. Handling paperwork simply shouldn’t be this engrossing, but you’ll lose hours to breathlessly scrutinising passports from these fictional countries.
As well as the paperwork processing and household account balancing, there’s another aspect to the game. In Story Mode you find yourself caught between the unbending resolve of your bosses and the anarchist actions of a group that would take down the government. Deny the anarchists completely and they’ll do away with you, but side with them too openly and the authorities will quickly figure out that something is amiss.
It adds an extra layer of intrigue to the bureaucratic busywork to ensure the game doesn’t get repetitive or boring.
Papers, Please won’t appeal to everyone, whether due to the deliberately dreary and utilitarian design, or the seemingly mundane nature of the way it plays. But give it a chance and you’ll realise that what at first sounds like the recipe for a dull game is actually an interesting and engaging experience that is simply more fun than it has any right to be.