Papers Please caught my attention when they started advertising on sites for people to input their names which would then appear in the game as NPC names. I thought, why not, and inputted my name. After further exploration of the site, I realised that it was unlikely my name would ever make the final cut. For the game is set in a kind of dystopian eastern-European setting, and the names already in the game reflect that influence. Unfortunately my Chinese surname was probably not going to be very suitable. Still, I was intrigued, and I downloaded the Beta version to give it a go.
What I discovered was a rather deceivingly simple looking game. You play the role of a border controls officer who has to verify things like entry permits, passports, work permits and work visas and decide who to let in. It starts off fairly easy, and initially, the only requirement to get into Arstotzka, the nation you work for, is to have a dated entry permit for today or to be a citizen. You stamp ALLOW on their requisite documents and they go through. Stamp DENY though, and they’ll trudge out of the line. You let people through easily and you’ll earn lots of money doing so. The next day, you’re told that people need to have their passports checked as well. So you check for discrepancies and highlight any that exist, but still, for the most part, most people get through. Life is good for you and your family who depends on your earnings.
Then…BOOM. You’re trying to assess a person when the game seems to freeze. The security guards on your screen are running and they see a man whose coat is open, waving explosives about. The man explodes. The border is shut early for the day. You go home with less pay and the worrying feeling that perhaps you accidentally let in that suicide bomber and caused the death of dozens of your fellow Arstotzkans.
Security gets tighter as a result of this suicide bombing at the border. You’ll be given a newspaper report of it too, just to rub it in further. Now, you’ll have to cross reference people’s passports with their work permit and work visas, as well as do some minor interrogation on people to check that the details match their account. You have various tools available on your desk to aid you in this endeavour. You’ll have to consult the official rules book and the almanac to check whether the countries these people hail from are legitimate. You’ll have to make sure the dates are all valid on all their documents by cross referencing with the clock on your desk. You have a highlighting tool which you use to match discrepancies with items in your almanac or on your table or the dialog script that gets printed. Only by highlighting the right things will the game let you get on with official processes like arresting someone or doing a body scan.
The whole game takes place on your desk, which will soon be littered with extra material and makes it difficult to organise and manage your time. Because, don’t forget, you’re up against the clock. You have to make fast, but accurate decisions, because you get paid for every person you correctly assess. Fail to assess someone correctly (such as denying someone entry when they were fine or letting someone through who had a discrepancy) will result in penalties. Three such incidents in one day will lose you the game. The payment you get will affect your family. After each day finishes, you’ll see a black screen with some white writing and options. Based on how much you earned, you might not have enough to feed your family as well as pay for heating. You have to pay your rent. Sometimes your family members get ill and you’ll have to decide whether to fork out for the medication you desperately need. Now, I found the family aspects of the game rather simple, but I suspect this will be more fleshed out in the full version. I rarely had an issue with family members dying or starving, even when I didn’t feed them for days. I think this will have greater consequences in the full version, but don’t quote me on that.
Now, interspersed with your daily routine of checking people, you’ll get interesting little side stories. For example, there’s a guy who is super cheery but turns up with absolutely nothing to verify his identity. You inform him that he needs an entry voucher. A few days later, he returns with an entry voucher, but by this time, the rules have changed and he needs a passport. A few days later, he returns with a clearly hand-drawn and forged passport. The man stays cheery throughout though, saying “Bless Arstotska!” He is quite an endearing character, and adds some flavour to this otherwise quite depressing game.
You’ll be handed business cards from prostitutes too, informing you that you can “Have a good time.” If you come to visit. Later, one woman who hands you the prostitute’s card will go through and beg you to stop another individual later in the line from coming. She says she worries that he’ll steal her passport and force her to work as a sex worker as soon as she enters the country. When that individual arrives, you can choose to arrest him or to let him through. Now, all his papers check out, so if you arrest him, he’ll kick and scream but be taken away and you might suffer a penalty. But if you let him through, an article in the paper the next day will mention that the poor woman you had let through earlier was murdered by this man.
Another notable incident is when you let through a man who asks you to be nice to his wife who is next in line. He checks out with all the right documents. The wife, however, is clearly missing some. Do you let her through regardless? She begs you to do so, she tells you about her plight and how she fled her home country and if she returns, she’ll be killed. If you let her through, you’ll have to take the penalty and be docked your wages. If you don’t…you’ll watch her get dragged away, crying and crying about how she is going to be killed and how you’re a terrible person. Chilling stuff.
The choices you make in this game feel very real. Despite the entirely made up nature of the world, it draws heavy influences from the kind of Communist Soviet dystopias that many Eastern-European countries suffered a few decades ago (and still suffer somewhat to this day). The people you interact with are interesting, varied and quite unusual at times, but still seem realistic. You will have people berate you for taking too long, you’ll have people super nervous at the border control and you’ll have people who are blatantly trying to scam you. Whilst I suspect the job of a border patrol guard isn’t quite so interesting as this game makes out (and is probably 10x more monotonous), the game does a good job of emulating the kind of moral dilemmas a person might have under a dystopian, authoritarian state.
You, after all, are just trying to do your job so you can feed your family. But by doing so, your job affects the lives and futures of so many people. The game dos a great job of making you feel like a helpless cog in the machine, pulled by the different influences on all sides such as the pressure from your family, the pressure from the people you face day to day as well as your own moral conscience.
Furthermore, the art style of the game reflects this sentiment very well. It is mostly a grey palette, with some splashes of dark blue and red. Most people wear simple clothes, and often look rather ragged. The art is done in a kind of low-res low-colour pixel style which lends it a very unique look. The soundtrack is also well done, and really does conjure up that feeling of being a menial wage labourer in a country with low economic prospects.
Now, bear in mind, I only played the beta version. The full version has been greenlit and it’ll be out on Steam soon. It’ll cost $10 to download, which I think is fairly reasonable, though it remains to be seen how the full version will improve on the beta. So far, the full version promises a longer campaign as well as an endless mode. It looks like it’ll have quite a bit of replayability, and so long as they pack the endless mode with random events too, I think it’ll be fun and engaging. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this game when it releases, and I hope this review has intrigued you enough to at least go try out the beta for free.
Download the beta here!