‘Papers, Please’ – Who knew bureaucracy could be so engaging?

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Describing itself as ‘A Dystopian Document Thriller’, ‘Papers, Please’ is a very unusual game. You play as an emigration officer, who works the border post for a fictional Eastern European country in the 1980s. As you can imagine, things are pretty grim; your country, the ‘great’ Arstotzka, has only just ended a 6-year war with their neighbour, Kolechia. You get to decide whether the people wanting to cross the border between the two countries, mostly desperate individuals from nearby states. Security is tight, terrorist attacks happen at your border post, and one wonders how long the peace will hold. Paid for each successful entrant, and fined if you let through someone who shouldn’t be let through, you also need to make sure you make enough money to feed your family, keep them warm, and keep them housed.

The gameplay is very simple; you assess paperwork, looking out for mistakes and, if none are present, you push the big green accept stamp. If there are mistakes, you can simply deny entry, interrogate the individual, or have them detained. It is done entirely with the mouse, and soon your screen will be swamped with pieces of paper. You’ll try to do things quickly, in order to make as much money as possible, which will inevitably lead to you making a mistake, and being fined. Soon, you risk just looking for an excuse to refuse the individual, so you can keep things moving.

This is where the true genius of the game lies. A man, his papers in order, told me that the next person coming to my booth was his wife, and although she did not have the right form, if she were to return home without him to the persecution they have faced, she will most likely be killed. She comes up to the booth, and, right enough, she lacks the right paperwork. If I let her through, I will be fined, if I don’t, she will likely die. I let her through, and her fine meant I didn’t have enough money to buy my mother-in-law medicine. Without it, she died. Did I do the right thing? I’m still not sure.

The soundtrack, a thudding communist/nationalistic anthem, along with the graphics, a blocky, unflattering style, both serve to make things feel severe and rough. Not needing the flashiest graphics to be engaging, you cannot help but become invested in these characters, you will be desperate to look after your family, while still trying to act humanely.

A popular feature in video games is having a ‘Moral Choice System’, in which one is made to decide whether to act morally or immorally. Notable in games like ‘Fable’ and ‘Mass Effect’, too often these systems are ridiculously simplistic; you’re told which choice is right and which is wrong, as well as exactly how much more good or evil each choice will make you. This is often ridiculous: what does +3 good or evil mean? What’s the unit of measure, saving or punching kittens? In stark contrast, ‘Papers, Please’ puts you into tough situations, gives you no guidance, and leaves it to you to work out what you consider the right thing to do. Similar to last year’s utterly wonderful ‘The Walking Dead’, by Telltale Games, this shows just how effective a ‘Moral Choice System’ is when it is implemented well.

Made by one man, Lucas Pope, this is a brilliant game, and shows just how much can be accomplished by one person, plenty of hard work, and a strong vision. I’ve found I can only play it in short bursts; the high-pressure nature of the game can be overwhelming. The game could have risked having a short playtime, however 50 different available endings, as well as an endless mode, add to the length of the game. Wonderfully well made, thought provoking, and even rather fun, this is a fantastic indie puzzler, and is definitely worth buying.

If you’ve played ‘Papers, Please’, let us know what you think of it. If you haven’t, you can find out about how to buy it here.

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