One of the more interesting indie titles of late, in both premise and execution. You play as a nameless, faceless border control officer of Arstotzka who is tasked with following the labyrinthine bureaucratic procedure that is verifying migrants for entry into the country.
The idea of a game based around checking passport dates and work permits for a dystopian government is a hard sell, but I’m about to try my darndest anyway. The main bulk of the game is in its story mode. Over a period spanning about a fortnight in game, you begin your job and are forced to contend with the ever-changing rules, smugglers, terrorists, recurring characters, a shadowy organisation and the volatile political condition of the world away from your desk.
Much like Super House of Dead Ninjas, there’s a perfect blend of game-making at play here. Mechanically, the strict time limit to each day, the necessity to pay for food, rent, heating and occasionally medicine for your family of five and wage based on applicants processed juxtaposes with the necessity of taking your time to check, double check and cross reference every last detail of what can be up to half a dozen forms. This ensures you’re always on edge and never quite have enough money to make all ends meet.
Then comes in the moral choice aspect. Some scripted characters have sob stories that may or may not be true, and as the adjudicator of who enters the country it’s up to you whether to deny the possible murderer, or admit the woman who claims to be the husband of the man you just admitted. Nice as it might be to play hero, doing so works against your own interest, as an incorrect entry or denial will cost you money out of your own wages. And the family is so very hungry, your wife is sick and Tiny Timyevski’s birthday is just around the corner…
The world you inhabit is a grim place. As bad as Arstotkzka is, there’s a reason people are fleeing the region enmasse to gain entrance. This is where the game’s narrative strength comes into play. At the end of each day, you get your wages and pay your expenses. Hopefully you can pay for food and heating after rent, but maybe you can’t. Uncle Festeronyev may have to forgo his medicine, if it means the rest of the family get to eat tonight. There are one off events that happen here too that will tax your moral centre, like your niece needing a new home.
There are other events during your work day that serve to create a plot you can participate in, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. It does, however, serve as proof that even the cardinal rules of storytelling can be broken. You have only limited agency in the mess that is this region. You’re not the hero of any of the game’s stories. You’re a minor character at best, just trundling along, trying to keep your family alive while others are involved in murder, terrorism, rebellion and desperate romances.
To give the game’s story mode even more recommendations, it also has a branching personal story for you. By making certain critical errors or proving your loyalty to different groups, you can achieve twenty different endings. Many of them are variations on the same event, but others can radically change not just the ending but some of the in-game days. My first play through, I took a large bribe and got tattled on by my neighbours and sent to a debtor’s prison. The second time, I tried being helpful to the scary Ministry of Information officer and got myself arrested and interrogated for my trouble. The third time, however, I got through to the end of the very last day with a squeaky clean record of loyalty to Our Great Arstotzka. Even if Tiny Timyevski and Uncle Festeronyev did die of disease along the way.
If you get Ending 20, you’ll unlock the Endless Mode. In this, you choose one of three challenge types and one of four levels of complexity. In Timed, you try to process as many applicants as possible in ten minutes. Perfection will fail you for making a single mistake. Finally, Endurance sees you earn a single point for every correct judgement, with every mistake losing you a set number based on its severity and ending the game when you enter negative points.
I’ll admit that after finishing the story I just wanted to process some more paperwork, and once you find the challenge and difficulty to suit you, it can have that “just one more game quality” but without the narrative framework and moral complexity, the game loses a lot of its charm.
That said, once you’ve unlocked a day in Story mode, it’s available for reply any time you want form the main menu. And the story is so unobtrusive that any reply of the Story mode doesn’t have that “ugh now I have to do THIS mission and watch THAT super long cutscene” problem a lot of larger games have.
Papers, Please is a bit pricey for a 5-6 hour Story mode’d indie title at $10, but it’s an intelligent game that deserves to be played and discussed far more than just about every AAA release of this generation. It’s available on both Windows & Mac OS X from Steam & gog.com