Why You Should Buy Papers, Please
It is 1982, it is almost winter. The 6 year long war with Kolechia is over. You have won a labor lottery for a job at the newly created border checkpoint, you will be able to feed your family and keep them warm if you work hard and diligently enough. Efficiency is key. You will learn how to quickly read passports and faces, entry tickets and visas, fingerprints, rule books, body scans for smuggled weaponry and contraband. You will learn who to let into your country and who to turn away, who to arrest. You will learn or your family will freeze, get sick, starve. They might do that anyway. Glory to Artsotzka!
Gosh that sounds miserable, doesn't it? And it is, in its bleak, eastern bloc, dystopian way. And thats entirely the appeal of this game. I first played this game as a free beta, where you could only play so long before it ended, promising more to come. Its such a boring, simple, straightforward thing in theory. People queue up to enter Arstotka through the newly opened border office you control. At first, only nationals are allowed in, to test it. They approach, slide you their passport. You check it to see if its expired, if its real, if the person is Arstotzkan. If everything fits, you stamp it green and let them through, if not, stamp it red and make them leave. The first day is easy and straightforward, but every day that passes the rules change and you need to keep an eye out for more and more discrepancies, everything from the expiration dates to the official document seals to the height, weight, face, and gender of the person trying to enter. Its easy to miss something minor, to forget to check and make sure the issuing city on the passport is correct or that the length of their stay on their entry permit matches what they say. Its bureaucracy at its finest, or maybe its worst (hint: its both). You'd think it'd be soooo boring but the gameplay is remarkably satisfying and engaging. I'll never get tired of stamping passports (though having about 20 pieces of paper on my desk to manage does get a bit overwhelming).
There were hints of a main story in the beta, and there are a lot more story elements in the full version. The core gameplay never changes, but you have choices to make. Let this person through to be with her husband even though she has no entry permit, keep this person out even though everything checks out because a woman says he'll kill her if you let him through, at the risk of being penalized money you need to feed your family? There are small stories like these, and a larger story that is told gradually that you can influence one way or the other. Things you do have an effect, which you can often see in the newspaper you read every morning, and it often feels like there are no right choices. Every little decision could have a major consequence. One time I forgot to compare the weight of a woman with the weight on her ID card and it turned out that she was a suicide bomber. Whoops!
The game's atmosphere is incredible, everything works together to create a very realistic world that you only see a fraction of from your tiny window. The music, the sound effects, the art all fit perfectly together in this really simple yet super effective way that from a game design perspective fills me with jealousy. Even though the world you reside in is subdued and really rather bleak, there are sparks of charm and humor and humanity. Everybody who plays this game loves the Cobrastan guy (his name is Jorji, you'll love him too). Its these little touches that really keep me coming back. I played the beta several times, seeing what changes I could make to the world, and there's no question that I'll play the full game with the same intent. Its much more difficult than the beta, which I was able to pretty easily do well in, and thats in no way a complaint. They've dealt with some of the more serious balance issues, no longer can you powergame it by just letting everyone in as fast as you can regardless of the penalties (hint: if you did this, you're playing it wrong). The full game throws more curve balls your way and things aren't as predictable.
I love this game, you guys. I have a thing for dystopian settings and this one is remarkably evocative. It's interesting and addictive and very easy to be pulled into. You feel the weight of your decisions, the monotony of your job, the worry over your sick, hungry, cold family. You question who to trust and why, you fear your government while you simultaneously rely on them for everything you need to keep your family safe. The creator, Lucas Pope, is a master at evoking this. As a warm-up for Ludum Dare, he made a fairly simple browser game that takes place in the same universe called The Republia Times (available here: http://dukope.com/play.php?g=trt) where you work at a newspaper and your responsibility is to run articles that show glorious, free Republia in a positive light. Like Papers, Please, there is more to it than meets the eye. There is so much to Papers, Please, all leading up to 20 possible endings, and you are absolutely going to get more than your $10 worth. It's one of those games I feel like everyone needs to experience at least once. If you're still unsure if it's for you, the free beta is still available for download at http://dukope.com/ and you can buy the full version on Steam, GOG, the Humble Store or at http://papersplea.se/.