Why I Like Papers, Please

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.

Papers, Please comes out on August 8th for PC. You can get it directly from the creator, or from Steam or GoG or whateverthehell.

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26 Responses to “Why I Like Papers, Please”

  1. Wayne says:

    I was shocked at how bad I felt in the demo when family members I’ve never seen died because I couldn’t stamp enough passports. But I couldn’t go any faster because I really wanted to do a good job!

  2. rstat1 says:

    OMGWTFBBQ, I cannot wait for this game to be available in its fullness.

    Thought its really odd, I don’t exactly know why it is I find this game so great, given how remarkably simple it is. Its one of those times where you say “because it just is” if asked why.

  3. mEmE says:

    I came to see some ash.

    This video is unacceptable.

    • Benjamin says:

      I came here for intelligent discussion about an amazing game.

      Your comment is unacceptable.

      • Jose says:

        I came here looking for some vintage french porn of the eighties and I ended watching a video game trailer reviewed by a bearded guy.

        Google is unacceptable.

        But I’m going to try the game, anyway. Pixel art mixed with a good story? Glory to Arstotzka.

  4. Henrietta says:

    Looks good. Definitely going to check it out.

  5. Zors says:

    Thanks for another great recommendation Anthony.

    I’m only about 6 days into the game now and it just started adding some complexities to check out. It’s becoming quite time consuming for me to do a proper job with each passport. One time I spend all my time checking all the numbers,names, iss, dates and so on. It all looked good when I stamped “Approved” but then I got a warning because I overlooked the obvious about their pictures not matching, doh.

    I only expect more elements to be added as I progress through the game but all I can say at this moment is that I’m just terrible. I take so much time with each persons that by time the day ends I only have 5 dollars leftover after rent, my entire family is cold, sick, and hungry. I’m almost at the point of flipping a coin to see which stamp to use just to support my family.

    Perhaps I’ll just let them all die and spend my leftover money at one of them whore houses, lol.

  6. jO says:

    Excellent review. I cannot express how good it feels to see this game getting the attention it deserves after seeing it come to life in the TIG forums for a long time.

  7. FauxBen says:

    This review actually sold me on this game, and I can’t agree with it more. This game has been wracking my moral compass like crazy, and it’s kind of unsettling to me that I’m actually really good at the bureaucratic fact checking aspect of it.

  8. Blast73 says:

    This game is AOTY IMO.

  9. ReverendTed says:

    In the demo I kept waiting for the Mother-In-law to show up “ill”. Not buying her medicine would be the best $5 I ever saved – and hey, lower cost of living from then on out!

    The second time I played the demo I found myself becoming pretty good at the fact-checking stuff, such that money was never a problem by the end of the demo.

  10. Mish says:

    Great write up sir, convinced me to grab the game and I have shared this article on my facebook. Keep up the good work!

  11. Ghrite says:

    Played through to an ending today. 20 possible endings really leaves a lot of styles to play through. I really enjoyed it. It is definitely worth every dollar. I did find it strange that out of all my relatives it was my son that was continually getting sick. I decided to name him Tiny Tim. Endless mode looks really fun as well. Thanks for the game suggestion, I had lots of fun.

  12. masteratt says:

    Spectacularly written analysis for a spectacular game.

  13. Junsu says:

    GOTY for me.

  14. brandon says:

    One Papers Please is a great game and I”m glad you enjoyed it. thank you for this write up, it very succinctly and eloquently. Also you should do a paper’s please hawp. Ash is the booth worker, dad comes in first and has to get body scanned, but he’s got a pizza attached to his body and he gets pulled out of the booth by the guards and “detained”. Then your wife comes in and successfully goes through, and mentions that you’re fleeing the authorities, then you go in, and you say you’ll do anything to be with your wife in the new country, and ash makes you go through increasingly humiliating events to get your passport stamped, but before that happens the clock winds down to 6 pm and the day ends. or that one of the separatists bomb the soldiers guarding the border and you get stuck in the booth or she takes you back to her level 8 apartment where her sick and cold and hungry family die on you.

  15. Ralphomon says:

    This game is fantastic. I got quite good at the fact-checking (only missing really obvious things like the entrants’ genders) so I had quite a bit of free reign with the 2 free mistakes you get a day. I also once killed myself with poison because I didn’t know how to work the little envelope thing it came in. That was a fun touch. The worst mistake made in the game was moving into a better apartment – the increased rent made it very difficult to keep my family warm and healthy.

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