Game Review | Papers, Please
Game summary: In the fictional socialist state of Arstotzka in 1982, a border checkpoint inspector must cope with complex entry regulations, superiors' corruption, terrorists, a mysterious group and the personal drama of the applicants for entry. (IMDb)
I first played Papers, Please ahead of its release as a beta version of the first few days in-game and thoroughly enjoyed it, so was more than happy to snap it up when it finally got a full release. The thing is, it's not the kind of game that you can just leave for a few months and then go back to, picking up exactly where you left off.
Things start out pretty simple, having to check the details of just a couple of different documents that require inspection, but it very quickly gets a lot more complicated. While playing, this isn't that much of an issue because the game 'trains' you to fold things into whatever rhythm you establish for yourself and it's relatively simple to keep up.
It's so well-designed that you are always kept on that fine edge of control and chaos, knowing that one slip could not only affect you in-game, but also entirely disrupt your thinking and lead to more mistakes. The best thing about this is that, very rare bugs aside, Papers, Please never feels unfair - you'll end up annoyed at yourself rather the game.
The game itself is as simple as stated above: you check various documents belonging to people wanting to cross the border into Arstotzka and can either admit, reject or detain them. There's nothing more to it than that, but getting to that final decision can prove incredibly stressful as you scan detail after detail for accuracy.
After all, the more people you process, the more you get paid so you can feed your family, keeping them warm and well. There are also little subplots that occur, with people wanting certain applicants rejected or accepted regardless of which choice is correct, and some of them can prove morally difficult to justify - both for the player and the in-game character.
The only real issue with how complex things can get is that you almost have to binge Papers, Please. It's not a long game, taking under four hours to complete, but I would definitely say that it should be played in as close to a single attempt as you can get. If there's too big a gap between sessions, you might find it more than a little tricky to re-build that muscle memory to succeed.
As for the bugs mentioned, they are very rare indeed: in three complete play-throughs, I had five problems where I received four citations for issues with documents that I had definitively got correct, and one crash to desktop that cost me only part of one day in-game. The thing is, thanks to the oppressive paranoia the setting encourages, I'm not actually sure if those citations were bugs or just the in-game government cracking down.
The atmosphere that this game generates from such a simple audio-visual design is just incredible. The game could easily be in black and white, as it would lose nothing - instead, Papers, Please lets you use your imagination to fill in the details to the visuals, while the simple music just matches the bleakness of the setting perfectly.
And that's what makes what could be bugs actually feel like they're an intended part of the design: your character has to put up with so much shit from their superiors that it feels like they're annoyed you're doing your job well because it could make them look poor at their jobs. How many other games could have possible glitches actually adding to the tone of the gameplay?
Papers, Please is clearly mimicking the USSR for its setting, down to every last detail. It's set during the Cold War after all, although with entirely fictional countries, but there's no mistaking that this game is about the paranoia of that particular political entity and how people could be punished for nothing other than because the state demands it - you very rarely find out what happened to the people you detain unless they were a high-profile wanted criminal.
The sad thing is that you could easily set this game on the US-Mexico border these days, or - if Brexit does go ahead, which it unfortunately looks like it will - any point of entry to the UK and there is very little that would have to be changed. For a game that came out in 2013, that's either very prescient, or just another example of how people very change and evolve to be more accepting of others.
Now, that's a lot of words of near-continuous praise for a game that is even more relevant today than it was upon release, so how has it not scored higher? I do think Papers, Please suffers from almost needing to be played in as short a space of time as possible before losing that mental rhythm you'll need to get some of the better endings.
If you don't do that, you might end up having to play the start of the game over and over again, but the gameplay isn't broad enough to make a new game a chance to play it a different way - it's all about refining how you approach the challenges the game sets you, not you trying to play the game a different way. Not a huge point of contention, but it may be enough to put some people off.
Papers, Please is a politically-charged game, clearly aping the Brutalist look and rampant paranoia of the Soviet Union and its member states for most of the twentieth century, but is also sadly relevant to today's world. Don't be fooled by it's retro looks and minimal sound, this game is full of atmosphere and can easily stress you out from the pressure of just trying to get through your day.