Papers Please is an oppressive state simulator in a verrryyyy historically relevant sense. Plus, you know, desk porn. Everyone's favorite!
I’ll give Papers Please this, there’s no better soul-crushing job simulator out there. It’s a palpable fear inside of a terrifyingly abstract regime that strives for order amidst the totalitarianism. You don’t know how to please the system because it can change on a whim. Your family, who depends on you for everything, live night to night, paycheck to paycheck.
You see all of that from the 90-degree angle of your desk inside of a low-tech border checkpoint. Yuck.
You’re an insignificant flea on the back of communist Arstotzka tasked with working at a border station. Guns and violence surround the checkpoint, some from the unrest of the more enterprising citizens and some from ever-present soldiers. You, as a person just looking to survive with your family, have to remain hyper-focused on moving people through your process as quickly and efficiently as possible to keep your paychecks level.
Papers Please is probably closest to an adventure game in style with text acting as feedback for your actions. One person will come into your booth at a time, answering your standard questions or going off on their own spiel as you drag their documents to your desk for verification. Details are king on the legal documents because of the nature of the incoming people themselves. Whether traveling or immigrating, it’s clear that this entire part of the world is either impoverished or on their way too it. You’ll grow accustomed to ragged clothes and desperate stories that your duties demand you mute in favor of numbers and procedures.
My favorite part of Papers Please is the experience inside of that booth. Organizing your workspace and workflow are just the first steps as you keep mistakes down and the endless line moving. Dates of birth and official entry seals are soon joined by entry papers, an entry ticket, wanted criminals, picture comparisons, fingerprints, and even more that you have to keep in mind carefully before getting out the green stamp. The consequences for a mistaken entry or denial eventually amounts to lower daily pay, which could end your family in a night.
One caltrop inside of the booth is how there’s a decent amount of mistakes made by the game on your judgements. As the layers ramp into the more hectic, I know for a fact that the game gave me negative marks for, in one play session, half a dozen correct choices I made. This led to a very cold, very hungry family one night that I couldn’t ever recover from.
The family section is far more cut and dry, serving as a results screen that means to hit more near the heart of Papers, Please. All decisions you make in the booth affect your home environment, taking away a lot of the morality problems you’d otherwise run into with some would-be citizens. Your family is made paramount because if they die, the game ends. The systems are angled towards self-centered actions with, unfortunately, no way around it.
There are curveballs that can lead to different endings, but a lot of them just complicate the narrative in a tedious way. One of the main lines throughout deals with a freedom fighter organization that pulls you into their cause whether you want to or not. An intermittent messenger will come in, drop off messages, and ask for your cooperation in taking down the government - something that this type of regime demands to have happen. That route requires such a stressful subterfuge and line-toeing that I just didn’t find it worthwhile in engaging until one side or the other threatened my family’s lives. This is surely intentional as you’re basically in the same state of mind as your character really would be, which is certainly laudable. I just wish it was more engaging in the interim.
Without that emotional investment in what’s happening and the cut/dry approach the game demands to continue onwards, your constant stamping feels way too heartless overall. Your booth person just doesn’t have any option to fight back that keeps his family alive, but because of how restrictively that’s presented, I approached it as another system instead of an emotional decision. Perhaps if the family splash page had your reactions or theirs, or if they became more involved in these schemes, your intervention would feel viable. As it is, the oppression feels too dense to fully embrace.
Papers Please is an oppressive state simulator in a verrryyyy historically relevant sense. Each country has clear parallels to real places, making this feel all the more like a window into a terrifyingly bleak recreation of someone's reality in our time. There’s a lot of power behind that type of punch, and it’s one that will knock you down in a way you didn’t quite expect a video game could. And it damn sure won’t help you back up afterwards.
Papers Please Score: