Game Review – ‘Papers, Please’ (2013)

Posted on by Dave

Platform(s): Windows, OS X

David Mayne

Simulation games come in all shapes and sizes. Want to be a truck driver? How about a farmer, pilot, sailor, police officer, or mayor? There are simulations for just about anything you can think of, but when it comes to a game like Papers, Please!, the genre takes a bit of a turn into gaming territory never quite seen before…and I love it!

Indie-developer, Lucas Pope, released Papers, Please  earlier this year via Steam and I have to say, at first glance, most gamers might utter a simple, “huh?” Papers, Please is an incredibly simple yet utterly complex “immigration” simulator where you play the part of a customs agent tasked with weeding out and verifying the status of immigrants, criminals, and scam artists while they are attempting to enter the fictional Eastern Bloc country of Arstotzka through your customs booth. Your job is to simply follow the plainly laid out “rules of the day” from your immigration handbook. Some rules are pretty standard, such as requiring everyone to have both a passport and ID ready for inspection. In addition, some foreigners must also possess ID supplements and work visas for additional authentication. Sometimes, documents alone won’t give you the whole story of who it is that is standing in front of you. Documents can be forged, faked, or otherwise wrong, requiring you to cross-reference said documents against your handy rule book to verify that everything is in order. A great example is:  a woman comes to your window, hands you her passport and ID, but the IDs numbers on both don’t match. It is then your job to point this out and if need be, interrogate the individual as to why she has given you the wrong documents. In another scenario, the person’s weight on the ID might not match the scale that each person must stand on while speaking to you. If the ID says 68 kilograms but your scale says 73, something is afoot! Interrogate the suspect and require a full body scan (or x-ray) to reveal if they are carrying anything suspicious on them. 9 times out of 10 they are either carrying illegal weapons or drugs, at which point you are to detain them while the guards proceed to make an arrest. TSA’s got nothing on you, home skillet!

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Once in a while, a terrorist will attempt to skip the line and run straight for the border into Arstotzka, leaving you the option to open fire or to let the guards at the far end handle it, although if the suspect is carrying explosives it’s lights out for anyone in the immediate vicinity.

Playing judge, jury, and executioner in this dystopian world brings both rewards and consequences. The main point of Papers, Please is to either “Approve” or “Deny” entry (via a final stamp on the person’s passport) into Arstotzka. By using these various techniques and by following the rules presented to you, you will have to make big-time decisions on who to let in and who to turn away. It may sound simple, but this game can easily overpower you with its heavy focus on being both expedient AND thorough in your investigations. You clock in to work every morning and only have 12 hours to handle X number of people. You are paid by the number of successful “Approvals” you grant. You are also docked pay by allowing unqualified people through the checkpoint or by turning away otherwise qualified individuals. If your shift ends and you still have 3 people left to process, you must still process them…minus pay. See where this is going? Papers, Please takes this economic angle a step further by giving you a family and an apartment to care for and upkeep. At the end of each work day you will be both paid and presented with bills that must be taken care of, such as rent, water, food, and heat. Your family must also stay healthy, and if for some reason you skimp a little on heat or food, they might get sick, requiring you to purchase medicine. Your family can actually die, which in turn will ultimately end the game, so it’s in your best interest to do well at work in order to keep hearth and home happy and healthy.

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Couple all of this with an occasional visitor who mysteriously warns you of the government and assigns you with certain tasks such as letting someone slip through security or assassinating a target of interest, and this game starts to get deep. The moral dilemmas will weigh heavily on you. What might be the right thing to do in a certain situation might also compromise your paycheck, or worse, have you arrested and executed, thus ending the game. You have to be careful how to proceed with this individual, who claims to work for a secret opposition group called EZIC, which seeks to ultimately overthrow the government.

Visually, the graphics are somewhere in 8-bit happy land, but don’t let that detract you. The underlying charm of this pixellated presentation is that you get the feel of being stuck in a little booth back at the height of the cold war. Arstotzka and its surrounding areas all seem to share that 80’s-esque, communistic bloc feeling of oppression and totalitarianism.  The sound is completely generic and drone, yet is incredibly effective in the same minimalistic way that the graphics convey the game’s locale.

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Your desk will get incredibly cluttered, your mind will race while scanning rule books and cross-checking documents for accuracy, all while keeping your eye on that shady looking guy in line. Multi-tasking is a must and so is an eye for detail. One little slip-up could be the end of the road, while perseverance will lead to increased pay and promotions. With a clock ticking away in the lower corner and a hungry family at home, Papers, Please offers one of the most unorthodox yet creative takes on the simulation genre in recent memory. Lucas Pope has indeed created something special with Papers, Please, and it’s one that any sim/strategy gamer needs to own. Now, if they could just bring on the iPad version!

Fun Factor: 10 – Papers, Please shouldn’t be fun, but it is! Hey, there’s a sim for everyone…

Graphics: 9 – Perhaps a first generation Nintendo looker at best, but don’t let that fool you. These graphics are enduring.

Sound: 9 – Same with the graphics, they will grow on you and give you that institutional, bleak feel.

Control: 9 – Easy point and click interface. A LOT of dragging and dropping and managing and sorting and, and, and, and….Organize your desk Comrade!

Lasting Appeal: 10 – Papers, Please! will remain on my PC for a long time. If a tablet version ever becomes available, my wife might leave me.

94% – Masterful

Suggested Games: Democracy, KGB (Conspiracy), Tetris

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