Player engagement is a major factor in video games. Whether pushing the limits of graphics hardware or challenging players with overly complicated gameplay, games always try to engage the player. “Papers, Please” succeeds in engaging the player without doing either.
Described as a “dystopian document thriller” set in 1982, the player is given a simple job: process immigrants at a recently reopened immigration checkpoint. However, unlike most games, the player is working for the Soviet-styled state of Arstotzka, rather than a democratic state.
Gameplay, like the graphics, is rather simplistic. The day begins when the player pulls the lever that opens the grille, and uses the loudspeaker to summon the first shuffling figure in a long line of poor souls hoping to enter Arstotzka, either temporarily or permanently. Entrants appear in the booth and dutifully hand over their papers. Some may have a little conversation, while others might be a bit rude. It’s up to the player to check them over for any suspicious information or discrepancies and then stamp the passport—green lets them in, red denies entry. Mistakes trigger a fine of five Arstotzkan credits for every slip up. The inspector doesn’t earn much and every deduction is a huge chunk out of his salary.
It’s here that the game gets pretty bleak. After each working day, the player has to balance the budget, dividing income between heating and food for the inspector’s family, while also allowing for extra purchases like birthday gifts. The Arstotzkan government does not pay generously, so it can be very tempting to skip food one day at the expense of your family’s health.
Managing your family’s welfare isn’t the only bleak aspect of this game. Processing immigrants on the first day gives the impression that the game will be a monotonous paperwork simulator, approving immigrants who have the proper documentation and denying those who don’t. Then a mother approaches the booth, begging to be let through to see her son. She has no papers.
This is where the game shines the brightest. It constantly presents moral choice and actually makes those choices matter. Should a human trafficker be denied entry, despite having all the right paperwork, knowing that this may prevent the inspector from being able to afford medicine for his son? Is it right to separate a newlywed couple in order to follow the rules?
In many ways, this is a videogame version of the Milgram experiment. Later, when the guard offers a bounty for each entrant detained by the secret police, it’s disturbingly easy to cross the line into monstrous behavior, arresting entrants for having the slightest of discrepancies in their paperwork without caring what happens to them, all justified as simply obeying the rules.
While not visually appealing, the game manages to be a beautifully compelling and absorbing experience, one that pushes the limit of what a game can be. It’s not a “fun” game by any means, but it is definitely worth playing. “Papers, Please” for the PC gets a 9 out of 10.