After a long day in a classroom, talking about goods and merchandises in scandinavia from the 1500s to the 1700s, I remembered how tired I was and just wanted to relax before heading home. I booted up my laptop, saw the intriguing art for Papers, Please, bought it, and played it until I realized that I would not get enough sleep before my next lecture. This was my first encounter with Papers, Please, a game where you are simply an immigration officer from 1982.
It’s a living
So what do you do as an immigration inspector for the fictional, yet obvious land of Arstotzka?
Well, each day will consist of taking in people who wish to cross the border, check if their passports are valid and legit, approve or deny their travel, and repeat. It is, however, not so simple. You must check the date of the passports, pictures, gender and in general that all descriptions and details are correct. If that was not enough, the laws and necessities for crossing over will change due to the world being on edge as a result of terrorist attacks, rebels, and more. You might have to check more papers, be certain they aren’t wanted criminals, and much more.
This becomes demanding, as you will have to check every detail of every paper and make sure you are not making a single mistake. If you do, you won’t get paid for your failures and will even get penalized if you fail multiple times. You are also under a time-limit, so you can only acquire a certain amount of income each day, so you will have to work quickly and efficiently. There is however a rulebook you will be provided with and notifications on new situations such as wanted criminals to look out for, so you will always have at least some support in your stressful days. An important tool here is the button for checking if something is off and worth interrogating somebody for, such as false pictures and similar discrepancies. You can’t rely on this for making certain all information is legit, as it will take too long and it is much faster scanning over with your own eyes.
All of this creates a fantastic atmosphere through gameplay, as you will be set in a workplace that sounds mundane, meet people who might be aggressive, dangerous or pleading for your help. But due to the stress, details you must check in every paper, and more variations being unlocked, it keeps the game fresh and interesting throughout its campaign, despite it being clear that you are doing work. There will also be some smaller events throughout occurring, such as attacks from terrorists, someone might need your assistance to stop another person, or even bargain with you in order to be allowed passage. All of them are interesting and it is up to you to decide how you want to respond to these situations.
At the end of each day, you will have to pay for rent, heat, food, and make sure your 4 family members are healthy. You will only get barely enough income to support your home, due to how challenging the game is, so some hard choices will have to be made when you receive penalties or come up short a day. Even more to consider, is when other purchases can be made, such as more equipment for your booth or maybe something for your family. However, just because you have money the first day, does not mean that you will the next day.
Succeeding by creating an atmosphere through gameplay is not an easy feat, but Papers, Please makes you feel as you play. Even more impressive is that it’s actually enjoyable. It is a unique take on making a quite dreadful and tiring job, not just effective at making you feel as the person you play as, but also fun and appealing.
Gameplay Score: 9/10
How to make a colorless world intriguing
There is one music-piece that you will hear throughout the game and it is perfect for that role. It is played at the intro and in the evenings when you pay the bills, and it gives an oppressive tone, with a rhythm that is staggering and only there to give people a motion to follow, similar to the drums on dragon boats. The endings will have different music depending on what happens and all work about as effectively as the main-theme. The rest is filled with eerie silence that makes the world uncomfortable and empty, despite plenty of people passing through on the upper portion of the screen. The sounds you will usually hear, are minor forms of speeches, the papers rustling, and the stamps for determining if someone will enter or not. It is incredible how much the use of sounds creates an effective atmosphere complementing the gameplay.
Adding to this, are the dreary colors and detailed pixel-art. The top part of the screen consists of grey asphalt, with the bottom portion being filled with plenty of papers to take into consideration, and a great variety of faces you will see up close. The artstyle is incredibly appealing and the use of dark and simpler colors, drives home what kind of world this is. There might not be much more to this, besides the minor cutscenes and newspaper-segments, but if it had more, it could have easily destroyed the already impressive atmosphere.
Presentation Score: 10/10
So many ways to end it
There will be many smaller events you will discover, each having a minor story to them and they might reward you with tokens, proving that you helped someone. When the game ends, you will also be shown how you did overall and get one out of 20 different endings, including deaths. These are affected by your actions and you can go back to a previous dates to get other endings, making it so you don’t always have to play through the 4-5 hours of main-campaign.
After you have beaten the main-campaign the first time, Endless mode will be unlocked. Here is a time-attack mode and two different versions of survival-mode, with all having the options for different difficulty levels. This is a neat idea, but also a shame that it could not reflect the main-game more, with more choices to upgrade your booths, challenges, and perhaps more family matters to take in consideration. Endless-mode was an okay unlockable, but the main-game is where it’s at, as it has more to offer due to its different endings.
Extra Score: 6.5/10
Papers, Please is such an oddity due to how much it succeeds at making literal, unexciting work, interesting and an effective way of creating an atmosphere. It is a unique experience, with a fun concept that gets addicting, thanks to slightly varying up the formula and interesting people to meet. You might not always come back to it, but you certainly will remember it. Glory to Lucas Pope!