I think it’s hard to explain the appeal of Papers, Please to someone who doesn’t play many indie games. The tone of Papers, Please is established immediately when you are told that you have been drawn from a random poll to work at the border inspection booth for citizens trying to enter Arstotzka. You are then supplied with a set of rules to adhere to and you sound the loudspeaker when you are ready to begin your shift.
You really have to act on your feet and work fast when you are playing. At the beginning it’s very overwhelming because it feels like you’re really learning “on the job”; flipping through rule books, checking for discrepancies, and trying to approve as many immigrants as possible before the time clock is up… and I STILL haven’t figured out the time clock!
Sometimes people could be lying to you or obscure information when you ask them about discrepancies regarding their gender or expiration date. It’s something I haven’t really felt before in a game to be a sort of enslaved labor worker but have the power to make big decisions at the same time. And trust me, the decisions have repercussions! You might let someone in because they beg you their son is waiting for them on the other side of the border, but for all you know they could be a terrorist!
With each new day of work, more rules and regulations are added for the immigrants trying to enter Arstotzka. Before you know it, you have to verify expiration dates on passports, permits, citizen IDs and more! All the while you know that the more people you let pass, the more you get paid to feed your family and give them medicine and heat. At the end of each work day you get a little summary that explains the condition of your four family members who rely on you to pay the steadily increasing rent and being the bread-winner. What a hard life! You can fail them pretty easily if you are playing on Normal mode which is the default difficult setting…
Okay, okay, so this game might sound really stressful and you might ask how this translates to fun. I think the challenge increases at a great pace and, similar to the game FTL: Faster Than Light, the more you play and become familiar with the rules, the more power you feel as the player. Your decisions matter and there are a variety of change outcomes for your actions. Not to mention the appropriately dreary, minimalist art direction. The sound design doesn’t fall short either; NPCs have an incoherent mumble that gives them just enough humanity to make you sympathize while the pounding soviet style music makes you want to rebel against the man and let people in who don’t have the proper documentation.
How will you play? Will you be a stickler and never make exceptions to people who beg for entry? Or will you scoff at getting a few measly citations in order to help people out. Pick up Papers, Please and give yourself a chance to experience a position of power that requires you to really question your own ethics and humanity.
Oh-and-Glory to Arstotzka!