Papers, Please occupies that uncomfortable space where your moral convictions affect your gameplay. Despite being a bureaucracy sim, it has engaging mechanics, a cracking pace and a tragic and revealing narrative.
Set in 1982, you play an immigration inspector in Arstotzka, a fictional, Soviet-like country. As would-be immigrants step up to your booth, you cross-reference their documents with your rulebook to ensure their papers are in order. If they are, you stamp their passport and return it. If not, you can deny their entry, or detain them for suspicious behavior.
The primary mechanic is a spot-the-difference one, but as you progress, there are more papers to compare and rules to follow. Even so, it’s incredibly satisfying to catch someone on a falsified document or with contrabands. The game is surprisingly tactile: you drag documents around your desk and push buttons to call for security or stamp passports. The sound of papers shuffling, and the “Ka-CHUNK” of the stamp add realism to your actions, even in the face of extremely minimalist and bland graphics.
Even so, the story is bleak. Since you get paid per person you process, there’s pressure to work efficiently. You’ll meet applicants who beg for help to escape prostitution, secret resistance organizations and lovers who want to be reunited. Additionally, you go home to your family each evening, and budget your meager earnings. Didn’t process enough people? That’s no heating tonight. Should you accept a bribe, if that means you can afford food? Once you realize that you are as desperate as the applicants you process, how you play becomes a reflection on you, as a person, not an immigration inspector.
With 20 possible endings and the ability to restart from any day, Papers, Please has considerable replayablity value. However, certain events (terrorist attacks or character interaction) are fixed on certain days, so the narrative can become tedious. Even so, they are removed in the procedurally-generated Endless Mode.
Papers, Please is a wonderfully executed, compelling game which evokes reflection on human misfortune and what we find valuable. In Soviet Arstotzka, game plays you.
This review was written for Short Game Review.