The lights are on
To be honest, I didn’t know what to think when I first
learned about Papers, Please. A game about running your own immigration control
booth in a communist nation with MS DOS like graphics and no gameplay other
than stamping Accept or Deny? Little did I know that I was in for a thrilling
game with surprisingly complex puzzle solving and moral choices that never boil
down to just right or wrong.
The gameplay seems simple on the surface, but it slowly
evolves over time. On the first day, it’s as simple as accepting natives and
denying foreigners. But by the final day, you have to work with multiple
different papers and dates. Make sure entrants have gotten a polio shot. Make
sure the weight of the entrants matches up to the weight on the scale. Make
sure that you don’t let any people on the most wanted list in. Stack that on
top of sniping terrorists who jump the fence and interrogating the entrants,
the game ends up being a large boiling pot of systems.
None of these gameplay elements are introduced to suddenly
or not explained, making a nice learning curve that never leaves you too
overwhelmed. Stress is your greatest enemy in this game, for your daily pay
depends on how well you perform. There’s no sound as terrifying as when you see
a citation form slowly rise onto your desk with an annoying click.
Speaking of the sound, it may be the most fitting soundtrack
of all time. The opening theme is remincent of the Soviet Anthem, playing
before and after every mission. The gameplay sections don’t have music, only
the sounds of your old PA system crackling to life and the acceptance or deny
stamp machine slamming onto a passport.
The writing and characterization of Papers Please is what
ends up stealing the show. The main plot focuses on just getting through the
month with enough money to support your family. If every family member dies,
you will instantly get a game over. But when your day to day job can barely get
you by, and you will constantly slip up at work, it’s almost ensured that you
will need to turn to bribes.
But beyond that, the country has its own problems. A shadowy
agency is trying to bring down the government, extremists from the bordering
nation of Kolechia are killing guards, and all matter of criminals are invading
the borders. How you react to each of these situations is up to you, but no two
playthroughs will give you the same experience.
The writing of each character though is really what sells
it. Agents from EZIC make very convincing arguments to side with them, you will
appreciate the support of your own personal guard and his good natured
attitude, and you will await very visit from the drug-runner Jorji to
experience his new hijinks.
But perhaps the thing that Papers, Please does best is the oppressive
atmosphere. The graphics are all in a dulled palate and the character models
look misshapen and miserable. Your character’s constant chant of “Glory to
Artstotzka” begins feeling less and less enthusiastic as you play while his
family members are starved by this ‘glorious’ nation. Artstotkza is truly a
miserable location, and the game will never let you forget it.
All in all, Papers Please is an engrossing experience that
had me encaptivated for days. The atmosphere leaks from every approved passport
and depressed immigrant who I turned away. The oppressive theme song that
blared at the end of every day was a harsh reminder to my almost-certain fate.
It’s a gripping game that never let up, always making sure that I care about
the cast. If I had to pick my favorite game to come out this year, or in the
indie scene in general, this would be it.
Glory to Artstotzka.
Excellent review xl9. I'm finding the game to more and more meet those descriptors quite accurately. There's some pretty stiff competition form the indie market this year for Papers, Please, but it might be a contender for me. Nice writing.