Her husband was all she had left. One green stamp could have brought them together, and you denied her at the border. Because she didn’t have the proper papers, and one more citation would mean your family starves for another month.
Papers, Please begins in November of 1982, when the “labor lottery” decides the player’s nameless avatar will man the Grestin immigration checkpoint into fictional country Arstotzka. Over the course of the next in-game month, players must ensure due process at the border while keeping up with constantly changing immigration requirements. And the occasional terrorist attack.
The entirety of Papers, Please takes place in a single screen divided into three parts: an overhead view of the checkpoint, a first-person view from inside the booth, and a closeup view of your desk. Flitting between these three views quickly becomes second-nature as the player checks documents for expiry and forgery, confirms an immigrant’s appearance, and keeps an eye on suspicious goings-on in line. At the end of every day, players review the amount of money they made ($5 per correctly processed immigrant) and allocate their budget towards food, rent, and heat. If that sounds a lot like an actual job, that’s because it is.
Loyal adherence to a single core gameplay mechanic is simultaneously the greatest strength and weakness of Papers, Please. Examining papers and giving someone a “yes” or “no” stamp is more fun than it sounds like, but still won’t be every player’s cup of tea for the entire four hour story mode. That said, considering the depth of the campaign, it’s admirable that creator Lucas Pope stuck to his guns and delivered every bit of feedback through a singular gameplay loop, rather than popping out into needless expository cutscenes or tacked-on morality ratings. The tedium and isolation of Papers, Please‘s singular gameplay screen can be a possible detractor from the elusive “fun factor”, but it is a vital part of how players experience the narrative. Even when a desperate immigrant, set back by bureaucratic decisions out of her control, refuses to exit your booth and gets a rifle butt to the head, you still have to call forth the next person in line.
The personal drama, moral quandaries, and threats to the player’s safety wouldn’t carry nearly as much weight without the pressure of holding up the unending immigration line. The plot takes an incredible amount of twists and turns over 30 virtual days, culminating in 8 different endings with twenty variations. A branching “family tree” save system allows the player to jump to any date during the game and try out different choices, allowing for a (relatively) quick viewing of all the possible endings.
Don’t let the seemingly simple gameplay and premise fool you. Papers, Please is a moving experience that simultaneously tells a great story and makes powerful social statements. The lo-fi MS-DOS aesthetic and pared-down sound effects are also impressive in their stark simplicity. Papers, Please is a lean game that knows exactly what it wants to do, and does it with more style and confidence than one could reasonably expect. The tedium of checking papers does set in eventually, but you’ll get shocked back to your senses when, in the midst of following protocol, you realize you have been treating hundreds of hopeful immigrants as mere commodity.