The fictional world of yestercentury was not a good one for Arstotzka, an Eastern European country facing a seemingly endless slew of immigration requests. Poverty is everywhere and unemployment is high. For even the chance of work, one must be awarded a position in a monthly lottery, earning only the bare minimum needed to pay the rent, keep you and your family fed and healthy, and try to improve the quality of life.
Papers, Please is a newly-released indie game that puts you in the role of a newly-placed border inspector who needs to analyse individual immigration requests, letting the applicants in or denying – and in some cases, detaining – them. It’s been getting attention for its unique storyline — and here’s your chance to see how the game works before you get your own copy.
Glory to Arstotzka!
Papers, Please takes place in the fictional country of Arstotzka, a territory presumably located in Eastern Europe, starting off in the mid 1980s. Though you won’t exactly be exploring the world yourself, a scene is set of a country plunged into rising unemployment, the extent of which requires key labour to be assigned through a lottery. Fortunately, your name is pulled and you are awarded an apartment for you and the family you need to take care of.
Each day you’ll head to work at your border checkpoint. Upon calling a potential immigrant, it’s your job to either approve or deny their request based on the requisite documents they hand over. The rules and requirements can change drastically every day, responding to events in the fictional canon, so keeping an eye on your rule book and the news is important.
If details don’t match up and you suspect foul play, you can interrogate an individual, leading to them somehow remedying the situation or causing you to deny their application. In some cases, you might need to take fingerprints, do a full body search (and that is a full body search, so you might want to turn off nudity in the in-game options if that’s not your thing) or even send your applicant to the guards to be detained.
Your performance is not without consequences. Processing applicants earns you money, money needed to pay for the rent of your apartment, food, heating, medical supplies and other key resources and upgrades. Fail to keep up with your finances and you’ll be removed from your position, only accelerated if you perform badly by denying valid applicants and approving those with incorrect documents.
Uprising at the Border
Being in charge of a major international border naturally comes with some breaks from the tedium of stamping visas. The game has various small story arcs which regularly come up in your days at work, ranging from a man asking you to let his wife through to processing international diplomats. You can be rewarded for playing into the requests of these individuals – either through in-game bribes or Steam achievements – but you’ll be punished if you’re ultimately not doing your job correctly.
Some of these events are more cryptic than others. Within the first few days of play, strange items can be dropped from the slew of immigrants and they probably won’t make a lot of sense until later on in the game. While the intervals at which these events trigger don’t seem to change from game-to-game, the interruptions do provide a little more depth and enjoyment to the game than if it were entirely comprised of processing standard applications.
Standard Issue Arstotzkan Dress
Papers, Please is a mostly top-down, single-view experience in a 16-bit-era style. However, the game still has an atmosphere of poor, anonymous dictatorship, so much like most indie games without the resources to power AAA-level graphics, the style still promotes a strong charm and level of immersion.
There isn’t much audio in the game and dialogue is handled through transcribed text rather than speech. The song effects trigged when you call new applicants or action other events in the game do get annoying after the first few days – to the extent that I just turned the song off a short while into playing – however, Papers, Please does have a title screen track that matches the atmosphere of the game perfectly.
Papers, Please seems really boring at its core concept, but the atmosphere of the game and somewhat frequent story-related interruptions in the Story mode tackle that well and still leave you feel like you’re having fun. The game isn’t as repetitive as it is complex and frustrating at times. From the second day onwards, you begin to learn of more and more things to look out for and this frequently leads to situations where you’ve got more documents to investigate than you have space and the eventual scolding you get for missing one piece of information gets incredibly frustrating.
Papers, Please is $9.99 and, even in the non-story-based Endless mode, it doesn’t have an awful lot of replayability. Based on it’s own merits, I’d recommend Papers, Please because it is an enjoyable experience and a good way to waste a few hours. However, those looking to get the best value for money could understandably hold off until a future Steam sale or look into buying an alternative game with a more significant degree of replayability.