Papers, Please – Review

Cause no trouble.

There was a program on Australian TV called Border Security. Maybe there still is, I don’t really watch much TV. The show followed the Customs, Quarantine and Immigration officers while they went about their daily business of confiscating fruit, pulling drugs out of the mail, and listening to sob stories from people without valid visas. The entire program was fascinating, predominately because of all the stupid shit people would do, and the ridiculous reasons they came up with. By far my favourite were the non-English speaking visitors who were communicating fine right up until they were asked to explain the 9 packets of plant matter they’d stuffed into their bag. Suddenly they didn’t understand a word of English. A leftist would call it xenophobia, but quarantine and immigration control is a pretty big deal. If we’d been more vigilant, we wouldn’t have fire ants invading Brisbane. We’d be able to stop the pandemic at the airport. We’d stop the drug traffickers in their tracks (heh). It was a great insight into a world of deception and honest mistake, and the people who had to sort out fact from fiction.

Papers, Please captures that feeling like nothing else I’ve ever played. The game is incredibly simple to pick up, to the point where it often feels monotonous in terms of activity. But that’s also largely the point, and even though you do the same thing again and again, it never loses its edge. Papers, Please casts you as an immigration inspector working for the Ministry of Admission. Your job is to inspect the credentials of any who seek to cross the border, rejecting those who have the wrong documentation or pose a threat, and allowing through the rest. To keep you motivated, you are paid money for each successful assessment, and penalised for failures. Money is important, because you have to look after your wife, son, mother in law, and uncle. Don’t bring home the bacon and your family suffers.

Initially things are fairly simple – reject anyone who isn’t from your own nation (Arstotzka). Then the documentation starts to pile up as the rules change (daily). Eventually you’re juggling many pieces of paper, trying to find discrepancies and reasons to reject entry. Initially the checks are fairly simple – the wrong city on the passport, or the immigrant simply not having the right documentation. But it gets more complex when forgeries start to appear, or when you’re looking through 4 pieces of paper along with relying on what the person is telling you. You’ll frantically toss papers around and flip through the rulebook, checking to see whether that city really is a part of that country, all the while checking that the photo on the passport matches and that everything else matches. As the papers pile up, the pressure is on – you’ve only got a limited amount of time each day to process immigrants. Your first 2 screw-ups for each day aren’t penalised financially, but after that they start to charge you money. It becomes a sort of balancing act – do you just give this one a cursory glance and let them through, or really take your time and risk processing fewer people? Is it worth the potential penalty?

You’ll also be required to detain, scan, and fingerprint people. Finding significant problems with papers can allow you to have the person detained for questioning. The game also has rather explicit body scans which are used to identify contraband or weapons, or even just to confirm someone’s gender. At one point I questioned the gender of an immigrant who looked male, but who was quite obviously female on the body scanner. Well… erm… move along, I guess? Fingerprinting adds another layer of complexity when dealing with false names and aliases. It just keeps on piling up, more and more demands and rules and things to compare! You also have a limited amount of desk space which complicates matters significantly. The people you meet are frustrating and sometimes heartbreaking (if you have a heart, which I apparently lack). At one point a wife tries to follow her husband across the border, but she lacks the necessary paperwork. Do you just let her through anyway and cop a citation, or follow your orders and reject admission? When people bullshit you with false information, or without the proper documentation, or by going on about random rubbish, you actually get frustrated. You’ve got so much to do and you just want answers to basic questions so you can get on with it. The game does an astounding job at capturing that hurried public servant feel.

Without giving too much away, there’s also a major plot with 30 endings to follow. There’s a load of political intrigue. The game itself is set in a sort of cold-war scenario – think of an East German checkpoint. There’s political conflict and turmoil all around you, and you’re inevitably drawn into it. The authoritarian government isn’t necessarily your friend, in fact it’s challenging to figure out where your loyalties should lie. It adds yet more problems onto your already heavy plate, as well as making the storyline much deeper. There’s really not much more I can say about that aspect without ruining things for you, but it’s definitely intriguing and adds replay value.

Probably the best praise I can give you Papers, Please is that I found myself trying to work out a systematic approach to processing documents, and finding ways to quickly identify problems. I’ve even tried memorising the various cities for each nation so I don’t have to keep referring to the rule book. You get drawn into the game world and the various people you process and their stories. Graphically it’s simplistic, but somehow that makes it all the more real. In healthcare I have an endless parade of patients who are ultimately faceless – I don’t remember much about them besides what was wrong and a general idea of what they looked like. Even that sometimes is hard to recall unless it was an unusual or particularly nasty case. In a way, the blurred and indistinct faces in Papers, Please captures that kind of minimalistic recognition. It’s a remarkably clever game which is very easy to understand, yet is remarkably deep. On a side note, this goes to demonstrate that complexity is not synonymous with depth. You can learn how to play in under a minute. The UI is intuitive and it isn’t busy. But when you’re into that feeling of “This is all routine, there’s nothing new here” you’re almost certain to make a silly mistake, and it’ll cost you. Papers, Please almost seems designed to put you into those moments, only to bring reality back down. And sometimes I ask myself “If this was a real border, what kind of guard am I?” each time I make a mistake.

Papers, Please is on Steam for $10 USD.

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