Papers, Please, created by American game developer Lucas Pope, is the first-ever game in the up-and-coming “dystopian document thriller” genre. You take the role of an immigration inspector, poring over documentation and passports, and wielding the all-powerful green and red stamps. If that doesn’t grab your interest, I don’t know what will.
The interface of Papers, Please is simple: The top of the screen lets you see the crowd milling about in line, and keep an eye on what’s going on at the border. Your window is on the left and your documents table is on the right. You can inspect documents, and eventually fingerprint and search people, if you keep your job that long. The sixteen-bit graphics are stark and plain, to the point where sometimes matching a face to a photo can be a challenge, but that’s the idea. That is the gameplay in a nutshell.
The music and sound effects, few as there are, are fitting to the bleak atmosphere of the game. The only music is the militaristic tune played while the title of the game marches gravely up the title screen at first launch. The in-game sounds are few; the people speak in garbled noises, every now and again there is an alarm, and the dreaded printer, signifying that you have made a mistake in your duties and will be penalized. (I have never had so much anxiety about the sound of a printer in my life.)
To be perfectly honest, I, like most others, was a little confused by the premise, and by how in the world it was supposed to be fun. As it turns out, I don’t know that “fun” is a good adjective for it. It is definitely engaging, interesting, absorbing… But I don’t think I can bring myself to call a game where you meticulously inspect numbers and dates and names for discrepancies “fun.” But I still played through it several times.
You are presented with the story of a post-war country, a rebellion and a secret organization trying to overthrow the government, all from the perspective of a border officer. You are faced with many small stories, some large stories, and the mundanities of trying to keep your own family fed and housed. You have control over whether to unite the pleading wife with her husband on the other side, but if you let her through with bad paperwork, you’ll take a pay cut. You can help the secret organization overthrow the corrupt government, but at great risk to yourself. The game is full of interesting moral dilemmas, and it makes the decisions genuinely hard. You can be a soulless representative of the Ministry, or you can be a decent human being, often at the expense of the wellbeing of your family.
The game has 20 different endings, and is short enough to make it so that seeing all of them is not impossible. My only real complaint about this game is that it does a lot of telling and very little showing. The summary screen at the end of each day announces things like “Your son is sick” or “Someone dropped off a package at your house.” While it definitely does suit the stark and minimal style of the game, it might have been more engaging if you could get to know anything at all about your family other than the fact that they exist, and ostensibly you are supposed to care about them. On the other hand, being presented with only what information you need and no more definitely adds to the effect of being a cog in a government machine. If you don’t know then you don’t need to know.
The bleakness of the atmosphere is well cultivated, between the stark graphics and sounds, the miserable and varied people passing through your booth, and the minimal exchange of information. The decisions that you are forced to make are interesting and challenging; do you reunite the couple? Do you let the smuggler through for a bribe? Do you use your hard-earned money for heat or food today? The game is well written and engaging, despite, or maybe because of, its simplicity. Lucas Pope has created an entirely new way of experiencing a story in this game. You are not a hero or even a protagonist. You are literally a faceless government employee. The story happens around you, and you can take part in it or you can observe and just try to get by. Papers, Please has a fascinating way of presenting a story, and is well worth picking up, and definitely worth several plays through.