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Papers, Please - Review

Updated on September 9, 2013

Immersion is a difficult thing to achieve in a video game. Genuine immersion requires that the player not only feels like they are in the game world but that they are emotionally invested in it. Lucas Pope's Papers, Please takes on both of these challenges, and the best part, your character spends most of their time sat behind a desk.

Set in a fictional communist state called Arstotska, Papers, Please has you working as an immigration officer in the 1980s following heightened political tension between Arstotska and its neighbouring countries. All this is a backdrop to what essentially is a game of cross-referencing, as you compare people's passports to various criteria provided to you by your superiors, all while trying to earn enough money to keep your family warm and well-fed.

As the game's story progresses, each day will require you to carry out increasingly more complicated tasks, due to Arstotska's stringent immigration policy. For example, during the first day you'll simply be told to deny all foreigners access, only giving your stamp of approval to Arstotskan natives. Later on though, things become much more difficult as you have to compare people's work permits with their passport, whilst simultaneously keeping an eye on a group of "most wanted" posters highlighting potential criminals.

Whilst it sounds difficult, and certainly is as it progresses, the game handles this progression remarkably well. To prevent information overload, most level's rarely introduce more than one new feature at a time, such as adding new documents that you potentially have to check. The actual difficulty comes from balancing the speed at which you check documents while still making sure that you don't slip up. You see, the more passports you get through in a day the more you are paid, which results in more money for your family. Moreover, make too many mistakes and your wages start taking a hit.

What's more impressive is just how interesting the story becomes despite the majority of it coming from newspaper headlines and a few instances of dialogue text. The political landscape constantly shifts as countries argue with their neighbours, or terrorist attacks result in bomb threats. What's impressive however, is that Pope never draws attention to this through the game's design, nothing is embellished or overwrought, instead you're just left with your own cold, hard decision. It's one thing for a game to give you the freedom to act how you wish, it's another for it to not label those decisions with "good", "evil", or "neutral" monikers. Never does the game lecture you on what decision you made, and neither does the game make it obvious how much of an impact your choice actually made.

This of course, lends itself into the more personal dilemmas that game challenges you with. A man immigrating into the country passes through fine but his wife doesn't have the correct documents. She pleads with you to let her in but you're under no obligation to act either way. It's these kinds of choices that make Papers, Please so emotionally punishing to play. Later on, you're being bribed, ordered and bullied from all directions and it becomes a nightmare to keep everything in order, brilliantly capturing the sense of paranoia that one would presumably feel in an Eastern Bloc state.

Of course, the game's themes aren't just exploring 1980s Cold War-style politics. There's a definite stab at contemporary ideas here too. Immigration into Arstotska is shown to be increasingly dehumanising, as people are forced to strip naked for photographs to ensure that they are not concealing weapons or contraband. Meanwhile, you're constantly fighting to stay above the poverty line, as each day is bookended with a tally of your earnings and what they go towards (heating, rent, food etc.).

These home sections though, don't quite hit the same emotional mark as other sections of the game. This is largely due to the fact that your family is represented as little more than a name and a status condition, detailing whether they are cold, sick and so forth. Whereas you get to directly interact with the people passing through the Arstotskan checkpoint, you never get the option to do the same with your family, they're just blank ciphers, and therefore are never afforded the same emotional investment.

Still, these are minor issues for what is overall very well constructed game that manages to simultaneously comment on society and provide an incredibly addictive set of puzzles. With twenty alternative endings, it's clear that your choices have an impact on the story, making you feel that much more guilty by the end of it.

Papers, Please was released on August 8th for PC and Mac.

© 2013 LudoLogic


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