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.