With Dark Souls III behind me, and while I wait for the inevitable time-eater that will be Civilization VI, I wanted to go back through my backlog of smaller games. Papers, Please is a simple little indie title that has been out for almost three years (at the time of this writing), and has been sitting in my Steam library, unplayed, for quite some time. Now seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.
I just paid to go to a second job that I don't get paid for
Papers, Please is a funny little game in that it is so dedicated to its theme that the game actually does start to feel almost like a real job. You have to click and drag to open up documents, sort through papers, check dates, make sure the document was issued in a valid city, and so on. It's a lot of mundane work, and if you miss any little detail, then you have an omniscient boss who will print out a citation. I quickly came to anticipate the sound of a citation being printed with a Pavlovian anxiety after sending applicants through, even for the ones whose documents I thought I had thoroughly checked. You get two warnings before your omniscient boss starts docking your pay, which keeps constant pressure on you to try to be as close to perfect as possible. Paying for this game is almost like paying for a second job that you, yourself, don't get paid for. And it's kind of a shitty job, at that.
It's not just the potential immigrants' problems that you have to think about. You have your own problems. Every day, you go home with a measly salary, and you have to pay daily for rent, heat, and food for yourself and your family. Maybe you kids or wife get sick, and you have to spend some precious extra dollars on medicine that night. And if your pay gets docked for letting in people with invalid passports, then you might have to go that night without food or heat or medicines, which will just make your family more likely to get sick.
Hooray! A game in which I get to shuffle paper work and perform bureaucratic government functions!
You'll also have people with invalid documents begging to let you in to the country so they can be re-united with their families, or because they're political refugees who will be killed if they go back to their own country. There's one point early in the game in which a man will provide a valid passport and documents, and you'll let him through. Then he'll say that his wife is right behind him, but her passport is not valid. She begs to let you join her husband on the other side of the fence, and claims that she'll be killed if she goes back home. You could let her pass, but doing so will earn the wrath of your boss, and possibly a docking of your pay. This decision is a really difficult one to make, especially early in the day when you don't know if you're going to screw up on later document checks. Maybe if you're at the end of the day, and you have a warning or two to spare, you can let them go through out of the kindness of your heart. But then what if they're a husband-and-wife terrorist team? Or spies?
But even though the job you're simulating is a shitty job, the game isn't shitty by any stretch of the imagination. The mechanics are fairly simple and straightforward. You just click and drag to shift papers around on a desk surface, and click to turn pages. If you notice something in one document that violates a rule or contradicts with another document, you press a button to highlight the two contradictory items and then click another button to question the immigrant about it. You then line the passport underneath an "approve" or "deny" stamp and then drag the documents back to the immigrant to either let them through or send them away. It reminds me of the interrogation segments of L.A. Noire distilled down into an entire game. Except that it manages to avoid the ridiculous tone shifts and somehow manages to create a more natural and engaging process with the possibility of genuine failure.
All the actions are simple to perform once you know how to do them. But in order to be successful, you need to be constantly vigilante as you process information coming at you from multiple sources. They hand you documents, you ask them questions, you review the documents, and you sometimes ask them new questions. You have to be constantly processing subtle hints and cues either from the person or from the documents that they give you, and even the news of the day.
There's a huge variety of characters with a lot of little personal stories. And I love little, old Jorji.
At the beginning, all you have to do is make sure that the passport is from the right country, and that it isn't expired. But after a couple days, you have to start asking for an additional immigration ticket or a national ID card, and you have to compare the information and make sure neither document is expired or otherwise invalid, and that they don't contradict one another. You'll have to start questioning immigrants about how long they'll be in the country, and what their purpose is. You'll check their finger prints, put them through body-scanners, and check for known aliases. They'll start bribing you or offering you sob stories about how they just want to be re-united with their family or that they can't go back home without being killed. Your own superiors will even occasionally ask you to bend or ignore the rules for their own corrupt purposes. You shift from following simple procedures, to following more complicated procedures, to eventually making judgement calls and moral decisions. It's all very smoothly integrated and creates a growing escalation of tension and stakes as you have to balance your own individual budget with the demands of your government, the bribes of a mysterious insurrection organization, and the requests of the people who you are supposedly trying to serve.
As you're playing this very simple, small role of checking passports at an immigration checkpoint, an elaborate story of war and political tension slowly reveals itself and escalates around you. You'll learn about political refugees and criminals trying to sneak into the country (of whom you'll have to look out for). There will be spies, terrorists, smugglers, and criminals. And it'll be up to you who gets in and who gets out. Much like the excellent This War of Mine, Papers, Please shows us a video game story of war from the point of view of a common civilian rather than from the perspective of a soldier, super-marine, super secret special agent, or from the point of view of the nation state itself. It immerses the player in the human cost of war behind the front lines and tells a compelling and cohesive story of war, peace, tyranny, liberty, loss, and tragedy.
You'll feel like a small, insignificant piece of a much larger, international crisis.
On the job training
Probably the only major flaw that I can identify with the game is its lack of a useful tutorial. Learning all the little nuances of how to interact with the user interface and performing basic document inspections and interrogations of the immigrants takes a little getting used to. To have to learn the flow of thumbing through the different papers being shoved in front of your face, and organizing them in the little bit of desk space that you're given. The game does tell you everything you need to know, and it starts out very simple and adds complexities as you progress from day to day. Nevertheless, it still took me a few in-game days of play to really start to get the hang of the motions.
The problem is that the game doesn't really give you any grace period to do this learning. From day 1, even though the tasks are easy, you're subject to the ticking clock, and you are forced to have to pay expenses to take care of your family. Processing as many people as possible (within the allotted time) in order to get as much buffer pay before any added expenses start to accumulate is critical, so fumbling the papers around or clicking around the interface to try to figure out how to highlight perceived discrepancies just screws you over long-term. I ended up playing through roughly an in-game week to learn the basic interactions, and then I restarted the story so that I could perform a bit better during those early couple days when the tasks are trivially easy.
You have to be extremely efficient from the moment the game starts in order to pay your own bills.
Perhaps the game should have given you a day or two of work before your family moves into the apartment with you. During that time, your salary could be set, so that it doesn't matter how many people you process, and you're only docked pay if you get too many violations. Then, on day three, they could add the rule that you get more money for processing more people, and your family can move in. That way, you'd have a couple days to get the hang of the game in relatively low-risk conditions.
It's easy to go back and replay key days.
The developer did provide a very handy branching tree diagram for your save files. If you want (or need) to go back to improve your performance, you can go back and replay any previous day. Each time you start over from a certain spot, the save files will branch, so that you can continue to play multiple games in parallel without losing your original progress. Your latest save file will always be highlighted so it's easy to find it. This is a very handy feature indeed. At the time of writing, I've seen 3 of the game's 20 unique endings, and each felt organic and genuine.
The lack of a full tutorial isn't a huge deal, since restarting after a few days will only lose you like ten or fifteen minutes of progress. I consider this a fairly minor flaw. In some ways, this learning curve actually does service the narrative. After all, your character doesn't get any on-the-job training either. He's thrown into this situation with just as much practice as you: none. So this is probably a stressful situation for him too. The player, thus, feels the same pressure to perform, and anxiety regarding failure, that the character must be feeling, and it's rare for a game to pull that off.
A simple little game with a complicated message
Papers, Please isn't a game for everyone. It seems simple and easy, but it's a surprisingly challenging game, and the challenges imposed are a very unique and novel set of challenges that typically aren't present in video games. Those with little patience, or without an eye for detail, or without a good enough memory to remember all the increasingly-complex rules, will have a very hard time with this game, and probably won't have much fun. Regardless, Papers, Please is an exceptionally well-crafted and well-realized game that I highly recommend. So if those qualifiers above didn't scare you away from it, then you should definitely give it a try. It's complex, nuanced, challenging, occasionally-touching, and strangely addictive.
Money is very tight, and taking bribes is often the only way that you can properly take care of your family.