Summary Judgment: Papers, Please
There was a point while playing Papers, Please where the truth of “life imitates art” hit me in a blinding flash. My in game desk was too cluttered for me to really efficiently fit my rule book and other associated papers on it, so I resolved to make a cheat sheet on a real piece of notebook paper for the various bits of information I used frequently. I looked at my actual, real life desk.
There wasn’t room for a cheat sheet. Glory to Arstotzka, glory to my apartment.
Papers, Please is a brilliant exercise in the art of telling a story not by showing or telling, but by doing, which is something I feel is so important to the uniqueness of gaming as an artform, but so tragically rare in its true appearances. The game has no real cutscenes, no long exposition, no background lore to read. The game has a booth, a desk, and your bills at the end of the day. And that’s all you have the time to think about.
A NEW KIND OF CHECKPOINT
At its most core elements, Papers, Please is a game about fact-checking. The core activity of the game is examining people and citing contradictions between their appearance or story and their paperwork, as well as conflicts in the paperwork itself. By catching inconsistencies and having as accurate an approve/deny record as possible while simultaneously processing as many people as possible, you earn an income which you distribute amongst various expenses, chief of which is the whole problem of preventing your family from dying of starvation, freezing, or illness. At the end of each day, your profits and expenses are rounded up, and you get to make the choice of who gets what before progressing to the next day’s set of passports.
As the game progresses, more and more information comes your way, and it gets harder and harder to process a reasonable amount of people in time without making a few mistakes along the way. Either your accuracy or your efficiency is going to suffer, and it becomes a constant struggle to make ends meet while keeping your job and, more perilously, your integrity.
And that’s where the game really shines. The moral choices have no fanfare or alignment attached to them, and it all comes down to the same actions as the rest of the gameplay. You may be forced to do horrible things, and you do them the same way as the rest of your job: with one of two rubber stamps and a few buttons.
Rejection vs. detainment, approval of murderers and the splitting up of spouses, all of it is done by making you choose by doing, and that’s all so important to why the game is effective. There’s no detachment here; I don’t choose a dialog option and watch some other character turn my inclination into dialog or action. That person died because I took their passport and rejected it, end of story. The government of Arstotzka can prosper or decay based on the way you wield your meager administrative authority, and the game forces you to make a number of choices through your duties to the end of determining the future of the country.
But there aren’t many futures for Arstotzka that aren’t bleak. The game gains quite a bit of replayability by merit of the vast set of differing endings available, and most of them are pretty depressing. If you do manage to see all of the different fates for Arstotzka, there’s an Endless mode available, wherein you can stamp passports to your heart’s content, getting the game quite a nice bit of value for the low price tag.
The low cost shouldn’t be mistaken for an indication of lack of quality artistry in the game, though. Everything about the game oppresses you with hopelessness; as simplistic as a lot of the visuals are, they’re very muted and dreary, and the retro look somehow reinforces the straightforward depression of it all. The music isn’t much more hopeful, constantly bombarding you with songs straight out of a propaganda march. By the end of the game, you’re living and breathing Arstotzka, whether you want to or not.
Papers, Please is nearly perfect for what it sets out to do. The gameplay seamlessly merges with the story in some of the cleverest ways I’ve seen in a game. Even the cluttered nature of my in-game desk mentioned above really caused me to connect with my in-game situation on a personal level, like it was my real workspace. This is, at heart, a bureaucracy simulator that manages to make bureaucracy fun. If a lot of dystopian moral dilemmas and a healthy dose of perception based judgment calls are your cup of tea, I’d be hard pressed for a reason not to give Papers, Please a try.
MOOD MUSIC: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=id16jH2Mlas Glory to Arstotzka.