Okay, check the seal… passport numbers match, expiration is okay on the entry permit, weight lines up, name is spelled correctly, fingerprints seem right. Okay, you’re legit. Cause no trouble, comrade. Suddenly, the awful sound of a dot matrix printer. Citation issued: invalid gender?! Geez! The one thing I didn’t check!
Papers, Please is aptly subtitled as “a dystopian document thriller”. It is one of the more unusual games I played in 2013. Simple yet evocative visuals, core mechanics that actively attempt to frustrate the player and a story told entirely through gameplay, sans exposition. You, the inspector, are tasked with operating an Arstotzkan border checkpoint. This particular border has just opened after six years of war in a fictional Eastern-European-style geography.
At the heart of the game is a terrible conflict. I don’t mean the armed warfare that serves as a backdrop for the game. I mean a hideous, internal conflict. You are responsible for the needs of your family. You receive modest pay for each processed applicant. Failing to work fast enough ensures that your family goes cold, hungry or worse. Unfortunately, you receive new regulations, forms and restrictions almost every day. If any single fact isn’t right, you receive a citation from the Ministry of Admission. Pile up enough citations, and you lose cash. Work fast, get paid. Work too fast, your family suffers.
The game would be difficult, but not compelling, if that was the entirety of the experience. But there is another layer, insidiously brilliant, that makes Papers, Please one of the best games of last year. Each one of those applicants is a person. Many of them have stories. The border has disrupted lives, the war has torn families. What do you do, when you have to choose between feeding your son and preserving a marriage? Do you accept bribes to keep your family warm? Are you loyal to the government? There are difficult moral choices to be made, and not everything turns out as expected.
Possibly the greatest triumph of Papers, Please is the way it made me choose a role. More than any RPG of last year, Papers, Please made me get into who I was. Why was I behaving this way? Making these choices? Halfway through the game I realized I was playing the role strictly as myself. I was a father and husband. My responsibility was to my family above all else. But I also had a responsibility to my fellow man. I was making decisions based on the benefit of my pretend family, doing the best I could for my neighbors while protecting my loved ones from the state. I was making the decisions the real me would make. And it ate me up. It was real stress. I felt true conscience for my actions in a way that I haven’t felt… possibly ever when playing a video game. I didn’t play for the “best ending”, or for achievements or anything but what I felt compelled to do.
I recommend Papers, Please to everyone. I think you are doing yourself a disservice if you have passed on this gem. Buy it, play it. On your first run, really insert yourself into the drama. Become a part of the story. Later, sure, go collect achievements, see each of the 20 endings, explore your choices. But for the first play, get into it. It may be one of the most truly emotional games you’ll play in a long time.
Glory to Arstotzka!