There lies a sect of gamers that have grown weary from the drone of first person shooters that permeate the shelves of your local or virtual game shop. They cry out in the night, perplexed on the necessity of franchises rearing their heads annually, as if by some bloody ritual that must take place lest the industry fold unto itself. For those individuals who’ve grown tired of over-the-top high-budgeted scripted mundanity, Lucas Pope brings you a new type of mundane.
To cite the author, Papers, Please is a Dystopian Document Thriller. If I had to slot it into a genre, it would probably belong to some type of very specific simulation that has a lot of texture to it. I should probably clarify. First, the game takes stage in a place that is completely fictional but for the sake of analogy would exist in what would be the tail-end of the USSR and/or Russia 1982. Arstotzka is the name of the fictional place and, really, I don’t think there could have been a better choice when it comes to names. I mean, you just KNOW what you’re getting with a name like Arstotzka. And it’s in this very communist state of Arstotzka that a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia just ended leaving a town called Grestin split in half. And it’s at this divide where you will operate as the Border Control Inspector. Initially you have very little to worry about, you only need make sure the places reported on the card match up to the provided information and either accept them into the glory of Arstotska or deny them.
So now back to finding-a-genre for this game. It’s most definitely a sim game, one with a narrow focus on one particular aspect, but eventually it becomes very engrossing with regard to how many details you need to be aware of. So it’s a micro-sim but also macro within that micro or what I like to call MicMac Sim. Huh-huh? Not too bad, right? I’m pretty sure this new genre I just coined can apply to a number of games like Cart Life or I Get This Call Everyday. I’m sure there are other games that can apply but those are the only ones that I can think of off-the-top-of-my-head. Anyway, I’m kind of proud of that term. MicMac Sim.
BACK TO Papers, Please. I’ve briefly gone over a bit of the plot and what the game is about, so I’ll use this part of my review to remark on some of the stand out moments I noticed during my playthrough. First thing is the amazing game intro. If you thought the name Arstotska perfectly conveyed what you were getting into, the gat-damn intro will beat the lifeless-humachine feeling of assembly-line bullshit work like no other. Seriously, use the youtube embed below to get a feeling on how depressing this shit is. You can just click play below and continue reading, it’s just the music, no real video.
Alright, you’re feeling it now right? Like, feeling it? Good. The next thing you’re treated to is basically being thrown into a job and scrutinizing everything on the screen. The rule book helps a bit, but mostly you’re pretty lost. Slowly little indicators, tiny nuances make themselves aware to you, so you click it. “NEXT!” You cry out. On the top screen you see one pixely form enter your tiny booth but then OH MAN WOW! Did you see how that person enter into the booth in the first-person window? That was some high-grade shit right there. Let me backtrack a bit. Look at the pic below:
The screen is divided into a few sections. The top pane is an overview of the line waiting to get in, the checkpoint where you are working, and then to the right is the glory of Arstotska. On the bottom left is a first-person view of what it’s like in that box. To the right of that FP-view is your desk where you view documents and stamp stuff.
Alright so now that you understand the viewpoints and the flow, let me get back to the part where I was completely blown away by the person entering the booth because, Man.. it looks real good. So after the cool-beans silhouette animation we’re back to good old chunky pixels. Now starts the ‘game’. You’re given some documents and you need to check and make sure that all of the requirements for admission line up before letting them in. Sneaky individuals are going to try and falsify information on these documents so you need to pay attention to small details. Initially, this feels more like a job than a game, but soon you’ll find yourself rarely needing the rule-book and being able to spot fakes pretty easily.
I need to stress that in the beginning of the game, you’ll most likely feel the game is a bit errand-y and only becomes more errand-y as you go on. But the reward of playing is in the multiple story-lines. The path I chose was partnering with an underground rebel group looking to overthrow the corrupt government. To what end, I’m not really sure but the secret methods of identifying EZIC members is a lot of fun. Essentially, you’re given cryptographic messages and decoder pamphlets. You have to move quick if you want to be able to assist the EZIC members as you only have so much time in the day to parse through other people looking to get into Arstotska.
The interesting bit comes in with the multiple endings. Apparently there seems to be 20 possible endings and not all endings are valid completions of the game. Some or most of these endings are actually specific game-over elements, the traditional ‘bad’ ending for a game. Still, I have to admit that I’m extremely interested in seeing all possible endings for Papers, Please. Knowing that each possible ending has been accounted for, including just failing, is interesting. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the ‘Endless Mode’ that opens up after beating the game with a ‘good’ ending. The Steam leaderboards show the rankings for the endless modes. Somehow this game even manages to have a competitive mode.
TL;DR: Papers, Please is an esoteric game whose design is practically an attack on the mainstream. While it may have a slow start, practicing greatly increases the pace of the game and the fun ratchets up linearly with your expertise. Interestingly for me, the intrigue was based solely on the off-kilter mechanics then moved to the story and then back to the mechanics again. Papers, Please is so well developed, so well-rounded that when one part of the game was starting to wane, a new crux would carrot me forward. By the point my interest was satiated, I’d mastered the game far enough to the point I could enjoy hitting a high-score (so-to-speak). And perhaps most impressive is the completeness of Papers, Please. Where most games wait for sequels before introducing new features, for multiple reasons, somehow Lucas Pope managed to cram everything and the kitchen sink in without making the game seem bloated or without direction. From the plot, to the mechanics, to the setting, to the music and sound Ev-er-y-thing is perfectly polished. The best thing I could say about Papers, Please is: seldom do I play a game and come away with the feeling that everything was as perfect and complete as it could possibly be.
10/10: Papers, Please is a one-of-a-kind game that manages to feel like the best of it’s genre. Highly Recommended.