Papers, Please is a thought provoking indie game that's still a lot of fun to play. The message does not get in the way of the gameplay or the story. It just raises it to another level. You play as an immigration officer at a new checkpoint for the fictional nation of Arstotzka. It is a militant communist nation with strict rules and constant political upheaval. Your job is to check passports, permits, and every other document your bosses demand be added on to ensure the safety of your country. The rules change every day and so do the people you encounter.
Papers, Please plays as an intensely personal narrative. I became invested in my fictional household of my wife, my mother in law, my uncle, and my son. When my son died five days into my new job because I couldn't afford medicine, I felt terrible. His presence haunted the home with a big red mark under his name.
When immigrants were denied asylum for incorrectly documented facts, I felt even worse. But I had a family to feed. I couldn't afford to lose five tokens from my pay for every mistaken acceptance or rejection just to give someone else a chance to visit my country. I couldn't lose another family member to incompetence, no matter how noble the reason.
That is the genius of Papers, Please. You want to be the compassionate player, but the game punishes you for not buying into the indoctrination of Arstozka. Then the game punishes you for believing in the national principles to much. Then it punishes you for rebelling. Then it punishes you for fighting for your family's survival. Then it punishes you for not fighting hard enough for their survival. It punishes you for being too loose in your document checking and punishes you for being too thorough.
The gameplay is simple puzzle solving. You have a rules and reference book on your desk with all the new laws, a map of all the countries that connect with Arstozka, all their valid passport info, and a set of sample documents and logos to check official Arstozka paperwork. You have to call for the next traveler, collect their documents, and scrutinize them to make sure everything is in order.
If there's a mistake, you have to identify it first and then interrogate the visitor. If they don't have an answer, you have to decide whether to reject them, detain them, or let them through. There is no obvious right answer unless the document is a blatant forgery.
Lucas Pope designed Papers, Please by himself and did a fantastic job. He took a simple concept--turning his experience with immigration while traveling and living abroad into a game--and turned out something very impressive. There's a wonderful sense of history at play with a modern understanding of the challenges of international travel. The game gets a little heavy-handed with some of the messaging, at times (random searches are never random and any good fortune will be punished by the government), but this intrusion of social and political commentary actually makes the story more compelling. The heavier stuff is saved for later on when you're already invested in your family's survival.
Papers, Please quickly forces you into a very paranoid mindset about your success in the game. The dark, oppressive color scheme and steep and ever-changing learning curve draw you in deeper with each day of play. In a brilliant twist on gameplay mechanics, Pope allows you to restart your game at any point from any day. There are 20 possible endings to unlock and trying to collect all of them with 20 complete playthroughs would have been trying and dull. Instead, you can pick up from the day you brought on your own demise and continue experimenting from there. You can also play in a continuous mode divorced from the stronger narrative aspects if you choose.
Papers, Please is a challenging game because of the narrative and emotional investment. The actual mechanics and challenge level from a traditional video game standpoint are simple enough for any mature player to handle. It is a video game experience unlike any other in recent memory and one that you will not be able to shake off when you leave your computer to have a warm meal in a comfortable home. That's more than your character is ever able to achieve on a consistent basis.
Papers, Please is available for PC and Mac on Steam. The game is actually on sale for 20% off through 2 September as part of the Steam Greenlight sale.
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