Review: Papers, Please

2013-08-12

It is 1982. You are a proud, but unemployed, citizen of the glorious nation Arstotzka and your whole world is about to change.

Papers, Please is a sharp lesson in cognitive dissonance. You take the role of a lucky labor lottery winner, tasked to man a new border crossing checkpoint between the glorious Arstotzka and her neighbor, Kolechia. And by ‘lucky’, I of course mean nothing of the sort. In your tenure at the checkpoint you will encounter rapists, diplomats, terrorists and the crushing weight of a country on the downward slope of oppression. You will stamp hundreds of passports, detain dozens of travellers, separate families, and—if you can persevere in the righteous cause of your superiors—you might keep your job in the end.

Papers strikes players early with the bombastic march of tyranny, its title screen heaving up and down like the synchronized jackboots of a Red Day parade. The soundtrack is dead-on in evoking the kind of hopeless, soul-crushing and yet heart-swelling tone of the Eastern Bloc of Europe, circa 1980.

The graphics aren’t far behind, evoking the dim memory of old military strategy games from a time when the 20-somethings of the world could still recall what it was like to practice nuclear contingencies in school. The visuals are decidedly lo-fi, which you may think a detriment to a game that relies on facial recognition (in part) as a core element of gameplay. Thankfully, this is not the case. The faces are unique and obvious (with one or two minor exceptions).

The visuals and sound come together with a pleasing solidity. It is not flashy, but it gets the job done, as all steadfast Arstotzkans should. The shuffling of papers on your desk and the thump of your stamp as you either invite terror into your homeland or crush the dreams of good folk make the otherwise dreary practice of checking documents for consistency satisfying.

Story mode, which you must beat in a particular way to unlock Endless mode, weaves a great sense of life or death, both for the travellers hoping to pass your gauntlet as well as for you, your family, and your morals. In particular, your morals. There are 20 different endings to Papers, Please, and your choices—both large and small—will decide your fate, that of your family, and those of a cast of characters that you will grow both to love and hate, even though nearly all of them will only pop up once in your playthrough. Making the hard choice and ignoring the feelings of discomfort when your mind wanders into ‘what if it was me’ territory is the crux of the game.

Thankfully, at least at first blush, your mind won’t have much time to wander. There is urgency in every encounter, as your income is based upon how many travellers you see in your booth. From the time you click the bullhorn to signify the checkpoint is open, you are on the clock—and time stops for no one. Spend too much time daydreaming, or obsessively checking every item of paperwork, and you will have hard choices to make at home as well. Do you pay for heating in the middle of winter, or food? Medicine for your son, or an upgrade to your booth that will quicken your ability to deal with travellers? These are the questions that you must answer if you cannot clear your queue in a timely manner (which, by the end, is akin to a death sentence for your family).

The way in which you process those travellers is, perhaps, the weakest link in the chains of oppression that Papers, Please casts around your heart. Not to say that it doesn’t function. It does, in much the way that the Department of Motor Vehicles functions—slowly, steadily, and without much reward. The gameplay mechanics revolve around identifying inconsistencies, using the documents provided by travellers, your rulebook, and your daily bulletin. The endless storm of clicks is not furious, as in Diablo or League of Legends. Instead, it helps reinforce the atmosphere of the game. Steady, slow, and relentless, the papers will be shuffled and the passports will be stamped.

It is for this reason that it is hard to call Papers, Please ‘fun.’ It isn’t, really. What it is, though, is thought-provoking, cutting, and above all a tremendous achievement for independent developer Lucas Pope. Papers, Please evokes a profound cognitive dissonance as you struggle to squash your sympathy for the people on the other side of your counter and sadness when you let a suicide bomber through the gate, killing your comrades-in-arms outside. In the end, you know you have to carry on, for your family if nothing else.

Empathy should be abolished. Traitors should be detained. And above all: Glory to Arstotzka.

This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Marc Scaurus.

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