There will be spoilers here. But really, this review is being done for the benefit of people who have already played the game and just want to hear my opinion on here and see where Papers, Please lands on the Leaderboard. Assuming it does.
Former IGC writer Jerry, aka Indie Gamer Guy, tackled today’s game nearly a year ago. By that point, I was still mostly focused on XBLIG and hadn’t even done a single PC review yet. I did play a little of Papers, Please but it didn’t grab me immediately, and since Jerry did it, I figured I had no reason to go back to it. Then I did my first Steam review a few weeks ago, and with it, instantaneously, dozens of readers started pestering me for my opinion on Papers, Please. People were using terms like “nobody would have ever tried a game like this before indies” or “it uses video games as a medium for social commentary like no game ever has.” While they did that, I’m thinking to myself, we’re talking about a fucking paperwork simulator, aren’t we?
And yeah, we are, but that grossly oversimplifies thing. If you’ve been living under a rock, the basic idea is you work as an immigration inspector for a fictionalized version of a cold-war era communist dictatorship. You never see your character’s face, or learn his name. One by one, people come up to your booth presenting their immigration papers. Just a few documents per person at the start. A passport and an entry pass for foreigners. A passport and ID for locals returning home because they’re fucking idiots and Glory to Arstotzka! There’s no tutorial, just some less than thorough static instruction screens that originally left me feeling unimpressed. I had to rely heavily on a rule book that had a map of all the local countries and their cities. Basically, the game revolves around checking all the paperwork for spelling mistakes or inconsistencies. For example, a city may be called Bumfuckistan, but on the paperwork, it’s listed as Bumfuchistan. Or sometimes they’ll be missing a document altogether. If the paperwork is good, you send them through. If not, you don’t.
What’s happening is we’re going to take you into the back room and introduce you to the science of ballistic propulsion.
And while this is going on, a revolutionary group occasionally drops in soliciting your help in undermining the system and over throwing the regime. The regime which you really never see, and can only assume is evil because they keep adding more paperwork for you to sort through. Going by that standard, California must be barely a step below Nazi Germany if the amount of paperwork involved in ANYTHING here is any indication. That’s what disappoints me about Papers, Please: every motivation and menace is simply implied to exist, and mostly left to your imagination. And the worst case isn’t always as bad as it seems.
I’ll give you an example: there’s a dude that shows up frequently in the game named Jorji who is, for the lack of a better term, a fucking moron. He shows up at first without any papers, so you reject him. Then he shows up with a fake passport that looks like it was made with a set of crayons. This is before you’re given the option to detain people. Eventually, he does get the right paperwork, but his listed weight is different, which implies he’s smuggling something on his person. Upon scanning him (which includes full-frontal nudity if you turn the option on, though for you pervs out there, it’s not exactly erotic) you confirm that he’s trying to sneak drugs across the border. At this point, I was simply playing the good employee, not letting ANYONE sneak in for any reason, even when the game clearly implies that you’re supposed to. So I had him arrested, and figured he was about to be shot. Thought nothing of it. So long Jorji.
A few days later, Jorji shows up, alive and well. He claims he has cops on the take. Yeah right. The fact that this grade-A nincompoop survived being detained really took the oomph out of the whole detaining process for me. I went from thinking I had been sending people off to their deaths to thinking I had been sending people off to have their afternoons mildly inconvenienced. At this point, the stakes felt significantly lower. Hell, the meter maids were probably making more life and death decisions than I was. But then again, Papers, Please isn’t really consistent with pulling players into the experience emotionally. At one point, I seem to have become buddies of sorts with one of the armed guards. And by buddies, I mean we chitchatted a couple of times and that was it. One day, out of the blue, he hands me a locket of his dream girl, tells me she’ll be coming to the booth sometime soon without the right papers, and asked me to let her in. Anytime you let anyone in without proper clearance, someone else catches it (someone who is WAY better at their job than me, so I’m not sure why they even need me), you get a citation. Every day you get two warning citations, and then you start getting fines. So I had to eat a citation to let his girlfriend through, but I’m a sucker for crap like that. True love conquers all and what not. You get to watch them hug, and it’s really kind of beautiful.
A couple of minutes later, a terrorist got over the wall, I was slow on drawing out my gun (you get a gun later, because of course you do) and my guard buddy was fucking killed. Of course he was. Now, considering how fucking minimalistic the game is up to this point, this shouldn’t have affected me, but it actually did. I teared up a little. No joke. And then I cheated and restarted the day, making sure to save him. So bravo game, you got me there.
BUT, you didn’t get me in most other aspects. You have a family to take care of, but you never actually interact with them. Ever. Eventually, you get a picture of them to hang on the wall of your booth (which actually will land you in jail if you do it), but that’s not exactly a deep emotional moment. Their only real significance is they cost extra money at the end of each day. They’re checklists at the end of each level. At some point your unseen, previously completely unheard-of sister gets arrested for something (you’re never told what) and you are given the option of adopting her daughter or not. You never see your niece either. Your son’s birthday comes up and you have to choose to buy him crayons for his birthday or not. If you do, you get a drawing from him. Yea? And the game reminds you constantly that if you get in trouble with the regime, it could land your family in the gulag as well. So fucking what?
That’s my biggest problem with Papers, Please. Your personal stakes just aren’t high enough. Who gives a shit if your family lives or dies? I didn’t. I never was given a chance to make an emotional connection with them. And it’s a shame because the developer was clearly capable of manipulating players emotionally. With MINIMAL interaction and animation, I felt a desire to help let my buddy’s girlfriend through the border, and was devastated when he got killed. When I retconned that and saved him, I was really happy to learn they would name a child after me. And hell, even fucking around with Jorji, I felt some kind of connection with him, annoying as he was. I never felt any of that to my family, and considering how keeping your family fed and warm is considered the main objective of the game, leaving them completely out of it feels like a cut corner.
Look on the street and you can see the couple hugging. That one teeny tiny moment was very emotionally satisfying. But there are few such moments in Papers, Please, and that’s a crying shame.
Oddly enough, the developer did get the aspects of the job right. My father, who is tickled pink by this whole Indie Gamer Chick thing, actually knows a cold-war era immigration officer, who currently works as a tech incubator here in the Silicon Valley. When Daddy saw what I was playing, he put me in touch with him. Granted, the guy he knew worked for the American side of things, but after asking him to try Papers, Please, he confirmed to me that creator Lucas Pope was pretty much spot-on about the bureaucracy of the job and the ways people try to get past you. Cities with the wrong spelling. Really easy ones that typically involved spelling out a city’s name like it sounds phonetically. For example, spelling “Iraq” as “Irack” or Russia as “Rusha”. Seals that are incorrect, or the wrong flag. Bribery. Begging. And the awareness that, in many cases, rejecting someone’s admission could lead to them being put to death in their home country. And he worked FOR US! He had so many stories for me that I told him he ought to write a book. But, and this is important, he said the game felt authentic. He also couldn’t believe anyone would even think to make a game like this, and was super impressed when he found out it was popular. His only gripe? He said the people being rejected didn’t ply on the sob-stories enough. I felt the same way. The interaction with those passing through your checkpoint is very minimal. This is probably for two reasons. First, because the game is randomly generated, outside of scripted events (some people always pass through the checkpoint on certain days in a certain order), and thus having to write that much dialog would have been time-prohibitive. Second, it would eat up the game’s already too fucking short daily time limit. After nearly 500 games reviewed, Papers, Please is the only indie I’ve played where I would embrace a “special edition” that adds dialog and new story arcs. Not because what’s here is so good, but because what’s here simply isn’t enough.
If it sounds like I didn’t like Papers, Please at all, you’re totally wrong. I was utterly sucked into the experience. I figured I would put five to six hours into it like any other indie. Over thirty hours later and I’m still unlocking endings, branching different paths in the story, and generally having a good time doing it. I’m not totally sold on the idea that Papers, Please has revolutionized gaming as a story-telling medium. Emotionally, it strikes out far more often than not. But, on those rare occasions when it’s a hit, that hit is a home run. No, overthrowing the regime wasn’t part of it. Frankly, that’s another spot where the game lost me. Why would the rebels have selected me? The first time I played, I was very much doing my job, gleefully sending people into a room to be shot. I would have been the LAST person they would have sought the help of. But they kept asking for it again and again. Sure, one of the endings involved them trying to kill me for rejecting them, but it wasn’t much of a payoff, because I never felt intimidated by their presence. Quite frankly, if they were centering their plans around my cooperation, they were doomed to fail. I spent half the time unable to tell guys apart from girls or properly remember how St. Marmero was spelt.
But I really liked Papers, Please. A lot. Hell, I haven’t even started the endless mode. Before epilepsy kicked the shit out of me for three straight days, I had just unlocked it, and I’m going to dive in as soon as I publish this. The play mechanics have all the workings of a time-sink, and the lack of properly anchoring the story on an emotional level should contribute even greater to that, yet it never once feels like one. That’s nothing short of a miracle. Let’s face it, this is essentially “Bureaucracy: The Video Game”, but it manages to be very compelling and a lot of fun. For all the people who bitch and complain about the lack of risk or creativity in gaming, even with indies, Papers proves beyond a shadow of a doubt how bright all of our futures are. If this review sounded too negative, it’s only because all the ingredients were here for this to take the top spot on my Leaderboard, but too many seemingly important story elements were completely ignored. Otherwise, I’m in awe. I made a meter maid joke above, but just now, I’m thinking someone could probably make a compelling game about it. Why not? I just put 30 hours into a game based around a job that I would rather fucking die than have. There are a lot of games that are glorified jobs that you have to pay for. World of Warcraft, the Sims, EVE Online. Papers, Please is a game about one of the most redundant jobs on the planet and it is a very entertaining game. Meanwhile, someone out there right now is a filing clerk stuck in the basement of an office building, bored out of his or her skull. Chin up, whoever you are. Some day, some enterprising indie developer will turn your daily grind into a transcendent video game, and it will be fucking awesome.
Papers, Please was developed by Lucas Pope
Point of Sale: Steam
$9.99 could have lived its life content without seeing Jorji’s tiny old man schlong in the making of this review.
Papers, Please is Chick-Approved and ranked on the Indie Gamer Chick Leaderboard.