Denied. Denied. Approved. Denied. What the fuck is this bootleg identification? Hella denied. Denied. Denied. Approved. Papers, Please.
All day. Every day. Denial and approval, rejection and acceptance. The implications of my actions are massive. I am one of the vigilant gatekeepers to the homeland, told that what I do keeps my fellow countrymen safe. And I must do it quickly and accurately because my family is depending on the money I make. The grand scope and the intimate necessity of my job are impossible to ignore.
Except I do. I’ve seen people die, I’ve shot people, betrayed others, and I’m slowly killing my family. But it’s all fading away from a roar to a hum to eventually pure silence. Everyone—from me to my wife to the happy-go-lucky guy who tries to sneak in—is just a number, a figure to check facts against.
It didn’t start out this way. I used to care. I was so concerned about making good money, and not just good in a decent amount but good in that I listened to these people. Some had family on the other side of this border check. Some were trying to flee bad situations. Even if I got demerits, I wanted to still be a good person.
Then it begins. I first reduce you to a picture. And then I make you nothing more than a country and a city. Then a single date. And before long, you are an obstacle between me and my stamps. It’s a slow degradation, moving you from column to column, from one labeled Humans to one labeled Animals. It’s despicable.
But I don’t care. And that’s the beauty of Papers, Please. Through the mundanity of repeatedly—ceaselessly—checking passports and visas and pictures and listening to sob stories, you become numb. I know I did. I stopped being the person I was when I started this terrible job and became a machine that only churned out stamped documents and meager money for my family.
It’s a game that manages to do what so few others do, and that’s tell a story through its mechanics. I don’t mean that it expresses narrative intent through interactions like when you are forced to do that thing at the end of The Last of Us or something, but an entire empathetic framework is constructed with the things you are doing to relate this character to you.
The only other game this year that really did that was Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, which grafts a relationship onto the two sticks of your controller before putting you under for emotional amputation. Papers, Please does it by transforming you the same way it does this poor immigration inspector. The first time you get docked for pay is hurtful. The next time it stings a little less. And then, well, there isn’t much left to hurt.
Then it shocks you awake. A hooded figure or someone with esoteric intentions shows up. A bomb goes off. You open the gun cage and you take aim. You are reminded of what you were before when you could actually feel and you weren’t just a whirring bit of gears and smoke that pumped out satisfactory accomplishments.
But you quickly slot back into it. It tells you how easily it is to give up what you hold most dear without vigilance. It tells you so much about the faults of being a person by forcing you to be just a tool. It does all this so smoothly and impressively that Papers, Please has to be my number three game of the year.