In a single moment, I’m flooded with guilt. I shouldn’t have let that man through. Then again, what could I do? He was determined to run and I was behind my booth, a lifted metal shutter and wooden frame between us. But it wasn’t about slipping on my duties after “winning” this position in the national labor lottery. It was about would they blame this one me? I need that money. My family needs that money. I can’t have this on my head, not being able to afford medicine and food and the rent.
Papers, Please, the recently finalized and commercialized version of a beta from Lucas Pope I wrote about a while ago, is capable of making you feel a lot of things, most frequently an immense amount of pressure to perform to keep you and your family happy and alive. But you, as a player, can also find strange joys. You work as an immigration inspector for the communist country of Arstotzka. Specifically, you work in a single, solitary booth at the border town of Grestin following a six-year war with the neighboring country of Kolechia.
You didn’t always, however, dream of becoming an immigration inspector. This is just how the national labor lottery shook out and now you live in a “Class-8 dwelling,” which I suspect is pretty crummy. So now your days are filled with following the incredibly mundane minutia of looking at passports, cross-referencing identification numbers, and asking where the hell your entry visa is. Aside from deciding whether to skip out on food or heat with any given paycheck, the entire game takes place on a triptych view of your work environment: an overview of an endless line of people, your square of visual real estate as those folk come up and drop their documents on your desk, and the area in which you do your work.
It starts out simple enough. All you have to do is check that the person in front of you has a valid passport from Arstotzka (after you open the shutters and click the bullhorn to call for the next person in line), so keep your rule book out to verify cities and stamp them with a denial or an acceptance. Easy. The next day you have to check for entry tickets, a little scrap of government paper that does little else but hold a date to validate against. But tomorrow, tickets are no longer valid, so you have to check entry permits, which complicate things with matching document numbers and various Ministry of Admission crests.
There is a crinkle, though, in the midst of this bureaucratic nightmare. As the number of things you have to verify before allowing someone to cross the border, you are introduced to the ability to interrogate people. You pinpoint discrepancies with what they give you and what you need, like mismatching names, incorrect genders, missing documents, and then ask what gives. Sometimes they’ll give you a legitimate answer (“that is a nickname”) or they’ll try to bullshit you (“what do you mean ‘expired?’”). You then have to make a judgment call on what is true and what isn’t against what might be right and what isn’t. A woman begs for her life, and you can choose to help or be right.
Being right earns you money. Being wrong will cost you, often in the form of disciplinary citations, but it can also manifest in other ways. As the story mode progresses, certain facets to the narrative will unfold. (Mild spoilers head, but these events happen in the first few days of the game. That’s like the first 20 minutes of a four-plus-hour game.) Early on, some guy will come up with no desire to cross the border but simply wants to tell you this immigration thing is a mistake. Another will make a run for it and throw an explosive at some guards. Then you have to keep an eye out for a wanted criminal. The narrative adds layers that keep you mentally and emotionally engaged.
It’s these external factors that require subjectivity and additional mental fortitude that turn a meditative experience into one that feels overtly looming. Granted, Arstotzka already feels largely Eastern Bloc (the fantastic title sequence shows the logo marching and stepping to a lovingly oppressive Russian-esque hymn) so the foreign veneer is already in place, but when the decisions you have to make are so nebulous and free to be shaped by your boundless ineptitude, it turns every small action into momentous ones. Every physical movement—from maneuvering and stacking documents to pulling out the stamp tray—is actuated from your end, personalizing each deliberation.
These are small stakes made into mountains. Faceless citizens (figuratively; they do have faces you have to make sure to match to passports) become people when they tell you that they just want to visit their son after six years apart or when they tell you to visit them in their salacious workplace. A guy clearly with debilitating delusions tries to get in with Crayon’d documents. When your job and the gameplay loop you engage with are so uniformly flat, these moments of poignancy stand out so much more. Humor is found every time you detain someone. Pride swells in noticing an otherwise flawless fake.
Pain floods the heart when you can’t feed your family.
I still haven’t finished the game, hence this isn’t a full review, but I can tell you from even just the sliver of this full release and the beta that I’ve played, this is something you should jump on. I just couldn’t wait the extra day to tell you to go buy it and play. A gripping story emerges out of the game in a way you wouldn’t really expect, but an endless amount of satisfaction from the ka-thunk, ka-thunk of denying and approving people can be found in a separate mode as well.
It might also reveal your latent psychosis as you realize that you can completely detach consequence from your actions, but the reminders that this is a world with people who have lives outside of standing in this shuffling line are incredibly subtle. Papers, Please dodges the bullet of being on-the-nose and instead lets you invest as much of yourself as you want into its finely crafted web of cold, callous bureaucracy and suffocating, gray-tinged depression. It asks questions that you’d rather not answer and lets you stew in the results. Your humanity is pushed out by soullessness only to be replaced by psychotic machinations, an understanding of being an inhuman machine processing very real (digital) humans. Papers, Please is something you should not probably but definitely go play. Glory to Arstotzka!