I’m not really sure how to review or even classify this game in a traditional sense, but I have heard it included in a very unusual set of games that some people are calling “empathy simulators”, and I think that is about as close as you’ll get to identifying Papers Please. In most of these games you don’t win or lose as you do in most others, and there isn’t even a clear cut ending in many cases. The goal of these games is to put you in the shoes of someone else and, just for a little while, feel what it is like to deal with their problems. Note I didn’t say solve their problems, just deal with them.
Usually the problems in Papers Please can’t be solved easily. The game is set in the 80′s in a fictional communist nation called Arstotzka located (presumably) in war-torn eastern Europe. You are a border inspector whose job it is to check over the paperwork of everyone entering the country and either let them in or don’t. That’s it, that’s what you do in this game, and for some reason it’s kind of addictive.
Things start off relatively easy. On the first day you only allow Arstotzkan citizens into the country, so just check their passport and approve or deny. The next day they allow foreigners, but only with an entry ticket. The next day the ticket turn into a permit. Then people travelling on work need work visas, then people from this specific region aren’t allowed in. It gets very overwhelming very quickly, and mistakes come quickly and at great cost.
Within your first few days you’ll see some things that suggest everything isn’t sunshine and roses in this region of the world. Some overly desperate immigrants will get pretty extreme, underground organizations might place some bribes, and the heavy hammer of communist government is ever present. Suddenly juggling all this paperwork seems pretty trivial compared to the moral problems at hand. There’s also this hilarious guy who keeps showing up woefully under prepared to cross the border.
This guy is the lone bright spot in your entire bleak day. Everyone is asking you to overlook their paperwork just this once to save them from potential death, yet every error (intentional or otherwise) costs you money. That money, by the way, is barely keeping a roof over the head of you and your family. Suddenly those bribes start looking mighty good.
The family element was actually my biggest problem with the game. When you begin Day 1 you see a screen showing the status of each of your family members as “OK”. This can change to “Cold” or “Hungry” depending on how well you’re doing at work. I know you’re supposed to care about your family, but I just don’t very much. It would have done wonders for the game to show you even a glimpse at your actual family. A photo of them in your booth, a small dialogue tree from each of them, anything.
Most of the problems in this game put you at a crossroads between your morals, the safety of your country, and the livelihood of your family. Your morals are at play all the time, because they are your morals, you, the player. The importance of National safety is blatantly apparent once you slip up and let the wrong person in, I’ll leave it at that. And yet your family, probably the player character’s top motivation, is only represented by a meter in the menu. I don’t want to dwell on that too much though, because this game really is interesting, unique, and quite addictive.
And hey, good on any game that can make bureaucracy seem compelling and, dare I say, even fun.
Glory To Arstotzka!