A woman approaches the immigration checkpoint you oversee. She is from a neighboring country and desperately tells you she has come to seek political asylum. You check her passport and her official entry permit. Her entry permit lacks the official seal of your country, Arstotzka, and is probably a fake. Just yesterday you let someone by with a similar story who also didn’t have the required documentation to immigrate, and it turned out they were a terrorist. Do you believe the woman and let her pass? Or do you deny her entry, potentially dooming her to fate as a political prisoner. This just one scenario among many you will encounter in Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please.
Papers, Please is described by designer Lucas Pope as a “dystopian document thriller,” but it would also be fitting to describe it as an incredibly sophisticated (and difficult) tower defense game. The gameplay is very similar to that of a tower defense: as an immigration officer your job is to approve, deny, or potentially detain persons who wish to enter the country of Arstotzka. You do this by checking the validity of their documentation according to your cut-and-dry rulebook. As the game progresses the rules – and the ways in which immigrants will attempt to bypass the system – grow incredibly numerous and, frankly, overwhelming to remember.
On top of the numerous rules you’ll have to defer to for each person who passes your checkpoint, you also are put on some rather strict time limits. Your day starts at 6:00 AM and ends at 6:00 PM. At the end of the day you take your daily pay and go home to your family, who you must care for with your incredibly meager pay which is based off of the number of people who pass through your inspection booth. Supporting a family is not cheap, and finance is just as much of a part of Papers, Please as its interesting twist on tower defense. If you decide to not pay for heat so you can buy an upgrade for your inspection booth, members of your family may get sick and require medicine (which costs more money) to get better. If you end up running into debt, you effectively “lose” the game early and are thrown into a debtors prison. And yes, neglecting your family too much may lead to their deaths.
In case it isn’t abundantly clear yet, Papers, Please is an incredibly sophisticated game though your mileage in appreciating its sophistication may vary. It’s incredibly easy to enjoy the game for its challenging gameplay itself OR experience the particular narrative twists and turns the plot takes. Papers, Please is somewhat minimalistic in its plot exposition, but this is a good thing — it makes it easy to play the game however you wish to approach it. And if you decide that the story isn’t for you the game does feature an Endless Mode which lets you experience its gameplay until your mind is ready to melt.
Speaking of incredibly open accessibility, Papers, Please has some brilliant replayability features. Not only does the game feature about 20 different endings, but its save system is incredibly smart and hassle free. Rather than having to start a game fresh the saves branch throughout the days you have played and tell you specific details about what has happened so far in that save file. For instance, the first time I tried going through the game I ran out of money and was thrown in debtor’s prison. I was allowed to choose if I wanted to start again fresh, or go back to any of the days previous to my ending to try something else. Developers take note: smart, unique save systems like this further enable and encourage players to experience more in-game content.
The faults to be had in Papers, Please are few and far between. To name, there are a few bugs I encountered during my playthroughs, but rest assured that none were game breaking. Occasionally I would get a plot character who would pass through the inspection booth more than one in a day, but I found this to be an incredibly rare issue.
Overall Papers, Please is a delightfully dark little game. It has an interesting storyline which scales in depth toward what you put into it, accessible replayability, challening gameplay, and fantastic art design. Though at times the gameplay can feel a little bit samey, it is clear that — to some extent — this is to drive home a higher point toward players about humanity turning itself into some kind of horrific behaviorist machine. Papers, Please is one to get this year. And for the low price of $9.99 (EUR 8.99 on Steam) it will be hard to turn down. You can find Papers, Please on Steam, GOG.com, and the Humble Store (accessible via the Papers, Please website).