Review: Papers, Please

My recent gaming time has been spent soaking up AAA titles. 2013 smash hits such as Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us, with budgets in the multi-millions and development teams of several hundred people. So to spend a couple of hours in the world ofPapers Please, developed by Lucas Pope in a solo endeavour, and with a grainy lo-fi aesthetic, was a deep contrast. In games like Papers, Please there’s no where to hide. Beautiful graphics, a complex combat system, even voice acting are not to be found in indie games like Papers, Please. So the burden is placed on story. The player’s attention needs to be held from moment to moment, and a player’s attention is a hard thing to come by.

Papers, Please is described as a dystopian document thriller. That’s right, it’s a game about documents. It’s similar to @dukope’s other work (which I have not played), such as Republica Times, where you play as a news editor for a fascist government, and are forced to make tricky ethical decisions. Papers, Please puts you at the border of a fictional country (that looks and feels very Eastern European), sometime in the early 80′s.

The gameplay is a stroke of genius. The number of documents you are required to check for each guest slowly climbs.I found myself surprised by how engrossed I was by basically playing spot-the-difference, but each day at work brings a new wrinkle to the process. Is the passport past it’s expiry date? Do the details on the work visa match what they’ve just told me? Wait…is this person really male? Does the issuing city of the passport match with the issuing cities in the directory of districts?

You can interrogate, detain, or even search applicants. I must admit, the first time the blocky image of a naked body came across my desk after I asked for a body scan is the most uncomfortably voyeuristic I’ve ever felt in a game. Far more than the celebrity-snapping missions in Grand Theft Auto V or other AAA titles. You develop an emotional connection to this game with surprising ease. In fact, it surprises you at every turn. Many reviews claim the gameplay to be ‘inevitably repetitive’, but in the ninety minute story I uncovered, I was never bored. The game keeps managing to raise the stakes. You combat terrorists threats, criminals on the run, spies, bribes, and much more.

The stakes are all the higher as you make decisions about how to split your measly pay. My son was sick, but I didn’t have enough money for medicine. I sacrificed the heat bill to make sure he got the help he needed, but I knew the cold would see other family members get sick the next day. I never saw my family – they’re only text on a screen at the end of each day – but as the pressure climbs, as bribes are offered, as other lives are placed in your hands, you can’t help but think about where your money’s going. This is the most intelligent part of the Papers, Please gameplay. At the beginning of the game you find yourself committing to a certain code of ethics that you are forced to question only a few minutes later, and possibly compromise on.

For me, the ending came abruptly. But I am told I reached ending 2 of 20. Do I want to go back? Yes. Not immediately, but when I have another couple of hours to spare, I’ll be intrigued enough to try and do better by my family and fellow citizens, although I wonder if it’s better to get anything like a pleasant ending.

While the gameplay is certainly ingenious and innovative, I didn’t enjoy this game. I appreciated it. I felt wretched by the end, and I’m not entirely sure to what end. So…immigrating is hard…? Is this what I was supposed to learn? I kind of already knew that. By it’s nature, the game feels as though it’s  reaching for a social justice message, but I’m unsure if this was successful. @dukope probably didn’t intend for this to be a goal for the game. I can only presume he wanted to create a compelling experience. Under that criteria, this is a great game. It’s power to evoke a whole range of emotions, with seemingly so little, is terribly efficient.

You can buy it for $10, and it’s on Steam.