Cult Game Review – Papers Please

PAPERS PLEASE

Back in 2013, this sleeper hit was met with high praise and tons of examination from critics and games alike.  In Paper’s Please, you are a citizen chosen from a work lottery to maintain a border patrol agency for Arstotzka, a strict Communist country.  While on the job, you must choose between your own morality and doing your job as your state expects.  Will you fell pity and show mercy to potential citizens or will you maximize your own benefits while potentially leading the suffering of many others?  No matter the choice, you always address your next potential citizen with the same phrase, “Papers Please!”

The year is 1982 and the glorious regime of Arstotzka has selected you, a common working man, to represent the border checkpoint stations of such a proud nation!  Despite you struggling to support your family, you rise up the occasion to only allow those who can support this country’s ideals and provide services to help keep this land strong!  More or less, that’s the concept behind Paper’s Please!  However, you’re removed from the barrage of propaganda, only to be under constant surveillance of your overbearing supervisors…  A dystopian thriller indeed!  While the graphics are minimalistic and harken back to when the game is taking place, it still communicates an atmosphere of absolute gloom and anxiety.  While it could be said that these visuals lack anything aesthetically pleasing, that might be part of the point of this game.  Perhaps this helps in putting the player in the same realm of discomfort as the character.  When you’re in a job where you’re forced to contend with a wide variety of potentially dangerous strangers, as well as search applicants that ways that become downright voyeuristic, comfort is the last thing to expect from this game. Hopeful people (and the occasional terrorist) alike line up in hopes of becoming part of the “great” land of Arstotzka, or to escape a worse hellhole in the neighboring countries.

Game play follows a simple formula.  Before stamping a voucher, you must inspect your current applicant.  As the game continues, more rules and regulations follow the decaying social order and international frustrations that burden Arstotzka’s borders more and more as the game progresses.  Some specifics involve embargo on items, banning a whole countries’ populace, and in-depth inspection of goods, background, and even a person’s figure.  The player’s quandaries can come in multiple forms; is it right to turn down someone who has proof that their life is miserable, is it okay to take political bribes and accept someone who is absolute scum, is it okay to let someone slip by just because they offer you a good time away from your horrid work?  But, that’s not all.  As regulations become more harsh, things become more toiling for you and the applicants.  Whether it’s harsh questioning or what almost amounts to a strip search, the job becomes more grueling and humiliating.  And what is it all worth?  A meager wage to barely support your family.  And this assumes you weren’t docked for being caught either making mistakes or intentionally averting the rules.

While this game does have a start and end, the endless mode seems to only ramp up the anxiety and frustration felt by the main character and player alike.  It’s a non-stop loop of monotony, moral suppression, and paranoia towards both applicants and your superiors.  One could argue this mode is more immersive than the already fantastic story mode.  Your rush to complete the flow of papers and people feels trite and meaningless.  There is no joy or passion in your work, except for the rare grateful reaction of someone whose been approved.  But beyond that, it’s slogging through endless tasks while sacrificing your own humanity.

While all of this only gives a taste of the bleak world of Arstotzka, do we really need more?  From the depressing experiences of this worker, we understand how cruel and corrupt this fictitious country is, how oppressive it is towards citizens and non-citizens alike, and how pervasive sense of gloom and despair that hangs over this “proud nation.”  Rarely have I been so engrossed in a game that’s considerably so simple in its approach.  And even then, there’s plenty of depth to explore in terms of mechanics and the stark world you face.  It’s simply more than just a puzzle game.  It’s a test of endurance, a work of dystopian fiction, a troubling moral piece, and many other things.  It’s rare that I rave about and celebrate too many video games, let alone typically simplistic indy titles.  However, Papers Please is one of those occasions.  If you haven’t tried this title and all of what you’ve read has interested you, then please do yourself a favor and pick up a copy immediately!  As of 2015, it is available on Windows OS X, iOS, and Linux.  In addition, it’s supposedly coming out for the Playstation Vita as well.  So, if you like tough puzzles, psychologically fascinating challenges, morally grey decision making, and dystopian settings, this game is right for you.  All in all, Papers Please get stamped with 9.5 approved papers out of 10.

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