While there will always be room for fantasy in video games, as they often are an escape from the toils of reality, there is an occasional need for the harsh and soul crushing reality of being a cog in the machine and slowly being ground to a fine dust by endless levels of bureaucracy. There are simply moments where instead of fighting dragons by yelling at them in their own ancient language or dealing with an army of fascists in anachronistic ancient Roman styled armor made from sports equipment armed only with a grenade launcher and your trusted cyborg dog, someone wants to experience the degradation of being a low level employee of a second world country’s border control. For gamers desiring that level of reality, “Papers Please” by Lucas Pope is the perfect game to experience that special feeling that comes along when someone is being simultaneously violated and ignored.
“Papers Please” has gamers walk into the shoes of a nameless border control agent working for the fictional Arstotzka at the country’s border with Kolechia who Arstotzka just had ended a three year long war, where resentment still exists. The job is boredom with moments of extreme excitement peppered in because of smugglers, human traffickers, and terrorists. The border agent must live and work in this Kafkaesque world of constant rule changes, scrutiny from his government, and financial penalties for slight mistakes. The latter of those is important to note because the agent has a family that is completely dependent on his wages so if the agent makes mistakes then his family will pay as the heat and food in their apartment drops which can eventually lead to their deaths. To complicate matters, the agent must occasionally make ethical choices ranging from whether or not to let a woman in who does not have her paperwork in order to she is not separated from her wife to allowing a vengeful father revenge on his daughter’s murder rather than make him face Arstotzkan justice as a loyal agent of the state should. Worse yet, a terrorist group claiming to be freedom fighters for the true leaders of Arstotzka contact the agent to see if he would be willing to betray Arstotzka and aid their plans with the offer of bettering the lives of him and his family.
The gameplay of “Papers Please” is surprisingly fun and inventive for being a paperwork simulator. The player must analyze border crossing documents like IDs and passports for inconsistencies as well as the border crossers themselves and allowing passage or rejecting people based on whether the paperwork is in order. As the game progresses the game becomes harder and more complicated by adding more rules, more documents, and more things to memorize in order to avoid citations, which take away from the player’s earned income which is used to pay for food and rent. These are needed to keep the agent’s family alive and healthy, as when food and heat are taken away the family can die and, if the agent is ever unable to pay rent, the game ends. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the player is occasionally made to choose between helping someone who has a rather tragic reason for needing entry to Arstotzka but does not have their work in order, as well as being offered bribes. Being paid per successful entry or denial combined with the increasingly complex rules makes for incredibly frantic and challenging gameplay. “Papers Please” can also boast a large amount of replayability because of twenty different endings as well as a mode for unlimited play.
“Papers Please” is an incredible game that defies expectations as much as genres and is a phenomenal first commercial product for Lucas Pope. The story is immensely engrossing despite only being a few occasional lines, and the gameplay is fast-paced and challenging without being overly frustrating. Despite possibly seeing less than a thousand lines of dialogue in a game, including lines that don’t advance the story and only serve to explain gameplay, the story perfectly creates the Kafkaesque atmosphere that had been missing in dystopian works in the recent past. This is not the story of a society in collapse or after a disaster like is so common in what is now being called dystopian; it is the story of a man caught in the midst of a nightmarishly alienating world that’s losing the last bit of sanity left in it and has to either loyally serve the state, which couldn’t care less about him, or risk execution by helping people little better than terrorists who may well be worse and all the while has to protect his family from the ravages of hunger and cold. This unique ambiance makes “Papers Please” a must buy for any fan of dystopian works such as “1984” or “The Handmaid’s Tale” even if they are not normally a fan of video games. For those who are not fans of the genre of literature, the gameplay is still engrossing and fun, which should not be missed by any gamer wanting a fun and fast-paced puzzle game that is built around perception and a keen memory. Glory to Arstototzka.