There aren’t many people whose version of a good time is mindlessly stamping pieces of paper for people who secretly hate you and who you’re not particularly fond of either. Personally, it reminds me too much of a few failed retail jobs, but ‘Papers, Please’ does the impossible of taking a boring job and making it…well…not fun. Even more depressing.
Papers, Please is set in the fictional dystopian country of Arstotzka where they apparently assign jobs by a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ affair as you have been randomly chosen as the new Immigration Inspector at the new checkpoint. Arstotzka have recently ended a six year war with neighbours Kolechia and you are tasked with weeding out the liars, drug dealers and criminals trying to creep into your beloved country.
You have various mechanics to do this with, but the most commonly thing you’ll be doing is looking at the date to see if their passport has expired. It doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but the game quickly introduces special instructions at various points in the game. For example, at certain points the game won’t allow a certain nationality through, will force people coming to you’re county to work to show valid worker’s permits and giving out ID cards to all foreigners so you can make sure they aren’t too tall etc. It’s oddly compelling and satisfying when you realise that someone is three centimetres too tall before slamming down the ‘DENIED’ stamp all over their pristine passport. In between your job, you wander off home to manage your bank account. You get paid pittance for your crappy job leading to some difficult decisions when you arrive back to your family and you realise you only have 25 credits which is enough to use to eat, or to have heating and not both.
It makes you determined not to screw up, as if you do your superiors will issue you a penalty causing you to lose even more of your meagre salary and, further in the game, you have so much to remember to do you’ll sometimes forget to check the obvious, like making sure they match the picture, or that the date of birth is the same. I played the game for an hour straight, then took a breath and realised I needed more oxygen and it took me a few minutes to realise why. Every time I let someone through I was holding my breath, waiting for the dreaded printer sound that indicates you’ve screwed up. Any game that also makes me suffocate must be doing a good job.
If there was ever a game that proved you don’t need shiny graphics to be a good game, it is definitely this one. The entire game is made entirely with pixels giving it a retro feel. The lack of beautiful visuals actually adds more to the game giving it a gritty, surreal feel that hammers home the more poignant moments in the game, such as when a woman with a terminal illness can’t get the right documents to get through and obtain the surgery she need, so you have to choose between sending her back to inevitable death or letting her through taking a cut to your own salary that may be the difference between your children eating that night or not.
There is something of a storyline as well. Every now and then something will happen, whether it be being given a list of criminals to watch out for, being approached by a secret group trying to ‘save’ the country or just a dirty old man trying to sneak through border patrol with a hand made passport. You’ll also have people trying to jump the barricade and getting shot down by the soldiers near by, or by you if you’re quick enough, suicide bombers attacking and a few regular customers visiting you repeatedly to keep your chin up.
I’ve listed a lot of good things here and, if I’m honest, it’s a bit of a struggle to find criticisms. There definitely were some. No game is perfect, but they all seem to get dog piled by what the game does well. But, I owe it to my integrity to find a few nit picks. Sometimes it can be hard to tell whether there is actually an anomaly on someone’s passport or whether it’s just the way the characters were drawn as the pixellated aesthetics can be hard to decipher at times. But then, it is fairly quick to check whether or not it’s just your imagination, so you don’t lose too much time. Sometimes, when you’re given missions to do they’re really vague about how to do it. At one point I was told an assassin was trying to get through and I had to ‘stop him’. I wasn’t sure whether this meant deny him entry or kill him, but seeing as I was given some poison as well, I assumed the latter but no matter what I tried to do I couldn’t seem to do it. I guess it’s the pacifist in me, but it meant I had to deny him access and was promptly fined for turning away someone who was allowed in.
But these things just don’t seem to be such a big deal when I think about them. The game is charming, atmospheric and really makes you want to do well. For a while, I was repeatedly restarting when I went wrong because I was getting sick of the dreaded printer noise and the pile of fines growing on my desk were starting to mock me. I would be lying if I said I had ‘fun’ with the game, because that’s not really what it exists for. It shows you the life of the downtrodden. It shows you a cruel world where you have to scrimp and save to stop your family from freezing during the winter. Where you have to accept bribes simply to be able to eat.
The gameplay may be fairly simplistic, but it gets the job down. I can’t think of another game that has made me this terrified of failure and for that alone it is worth a recommendation.
9/10 – Don’t go into this game expecting a rip snorting adventure. This is a game where you watch someone waste their life in a menial job. Go into it with an open mind and you’ll be as transfixed as I was.