You know when you play a first-person shooter that claims to be about “how far you’re willing to go to protect the ones you love,” or “the true cost of a life,” or “moral ambiguity,” but the gameplay actually consists of shooting hundreds of dudes in the face? And you know how in the back of your mind, you wonder, “I wonder what it’d be like if a game actually designed its gameplay around those concepts rather than just duct-taping them on through noninteractive story?”
Papers, Please is that game. It manages to ask (and importantly, not answer) questions of duty, safety, privacy, family, self-interest, and morality through an incredibly simple, focused set of mechanics based around checking transit papers and stamping passports.
And it’s spectacular.
The basic, moment-to-moment gameplay is one of those things that, if you try to explain it to a friend or someone who isn’t interested in games, will make you sound like a doofus.
“So, a person gives you their travel papers,” you say. “And then you have to check all the information to make sure it’s not contradictory or forged.”
“Ah,” the other person says as they begin to look around the room for someone less bizarrely enthused about passports to talk with, “so you just, like, click the information and the game says if it’s correct or not?”
“NO,” you say, spittle flying from your mouth in excitement. “NO. Sometimes you just check for obvious discrepancies, like when someone looks female but their passport says male, and you question them on it. But sometimes, you have to check things in your virtual journal that has a bunch of information in it. So if someone says they’re from Antegria but their passport says it was issued in Haihan, you can check your journal and go, ‘a-HA! Haihan’s in Impor, not Antegria’ and where are you going please come back”
So, yes. It sounds boring. In actuality, though, the act of checking passports is incredibly satisfying thanks in part to the great audiovisual feedback (the ka-chunk of stamping “denied” on a passport never stops being tactile and weirdly satisfying), and the fact that successfully finding discrepancies actually makes you feel like a goddamn genius. For another way to look at it: imagine the good parts of Phoenix Wright (finding and pointing out inconsistencies in the courtroom) with none of the shitty parts (the crime scene investigation). That’s kind of what the passport review gameplay is like.
If that’s all there was to Papers, Please — if the entire game consisted of checking increasingly complex transit papers and nothing else — it would still be worth your time. But it’s the way that developer Lucas Pope combines this gameplay with some intelligent narrative and moral mechanics that makes Papers, Please an absolute must-buy.
Everytime you correctly review a passport, you get some money. At the end of the day, you can spend that money on food and heat for your offscreen family. At a certain point, the transit papers will get so complex that you will, inevitably, start making a lot of mistakes. This can become a serious problem as every incorrectly reviewed passport will deduct more and more cash from your pay at the end of the day. With your family’s lives on the line and the job getting tougher and tougher, the game asks you — like actually asks you, through gameplay — what are you willing to do to get the money you need? Will you take a bribe from a shady character? Will you start throwing more people in jail so you can get a cut of the prison guard’s bonus? Will you do knowingly dishonest or immoral things just so you can get that extra ten bucks that might allow your family to eat tonight? There are no right or wrong answers. The game comes with twenty different endings, so you never really get the sense that the game is judging you — there are simply a bunch of different ways to complete your 31 days of service, no “right” or “wrong” ones. For a game purely about stamping one of two answers on little pieces of paper, you’re actually given a spectacular amount of freedom in how you choose to express yourself. Are you a patriot at all costs, slavishly devoted to the system that got you this job? Or do you prioritize your family’s safety over all elsef?
And I haven’t even mentioned how disturbing, yet even-handed the actual act of processing a human being feels. Looking over someone’s transit papers, you get a glimpse into their life as filtered by whichever government stooge filled their forms out for them (probably another tired nobody trying to make ends meet, just like you). You look at the “physical description” form for a sad-looking woman. It has only one word: “overweight.” On the one hand, Jesus — you had one word to describe this woman with, and that’s the one you chose? That’s awful. But on the other hand…it’s not inaccurate. She is a little chubby, and if it had said “skinny,” I would have had to confront her about that inconsistency, and she would have had to take a fingerprint test, which would have taken up more of my very short day, which means I don’t get to process as many people, which means my family might fucking die.
There’s a ruthless efficiency to the things you do in Papers, Please, but it never feels morally simplistic — this isn’t 1984. The first time you put someone through a physical search (by way of an X-ray camera that shows you their entire naked body), you feel disgusting. Surely, you think, this is a statement on how post-9/11 American paranoia has exchanged personal freedom for the illusion of safety. So a few minutes later, when a woman comes up to you with a slight discrepancy in her papers — they say she weighs 88 kilos, but the scale in front of your booth says she weighs 91 — you let it pass, either out of negligence or personal philosophy. You stamp her passport “approved,” and she gratefully walks past the checkpoint to the soldiers waiting behind you.
That’s when she detonates the hidden explosives strapped to her chest, killing the soldiers.
You would have found the explosives, if you’d just x-ray searched her. But you didn’t. And because of one mistake, three people are dead, your day ended earlier than it should have, and you now have to choose between letting your family go hungry or cold tonight.
Not to mention that despite your lack of verbs and the fact that the entire game takes place in pretty much the same exact screen, Papers, Please is spectacularly immersive. Not just in terms of the graphics and music (though those are very good), but in that all of the game’s “story” elements are conveyed purely through the process of playing it. There are no cut scenes where you meet an Important Character who tells you an Important Thing. There is only your booth, and the people who approach it. You’ll see some characters over and over, like Jorji, the ever-optimistic old man who just can’t seem to get his papers together. Or the frightened prostitute who begs you – begs you – not to approve the man behind her (even though he’s cleared to enter) because she is certain he will sell her into slavery. Depending on how you treat these people, the story and your resources change. Your narrative and gameplay choices are the same choices – not like in, say, BioShock, where you have The Gameplay (shooting things, collecting resources) and The Moral Choices (the little sisters). The simple act of stamping passports, denied/approved, functions as both.
There’s a brilliant irony to Papers, Please. The act of checking passports is simple. This sheet of paper says you’re from Enkyo, this one says you’re from Vedor. Therefore, you are lying. The process is objective, mathematical, efficient. But knowing when to breach someone’s privacy to protect others? Knowing when it’s okay to take a bribe if it would secure the safety of your loved ones? Knowing who the good guys really are, and how far you’re willing to go to help them? These questions are difficult, subjective, unanswerable. That Papers, Please asks you to deal with both is nothing short of spectacular.