Developer: Lucas Pope
Publisher: Lucas Pope
There are some game ideas that just shouldn’t work. Sitting at a desk, checking documents for legality to earn money is something that doesn’t exactly scream the word “fun.” Hell, setting it in the downtrodden communist state doesn’t exactly exude glamour. But here’s the thing – indie developer Lucas Pope has managed to make a virtual take on a desk job an entertaining prospect, and now I have the phrase “Glory To Arkstozka”, along with the appropriately droning main theme, drilled into my head for all eternity.
The premise of Papers, Please is that you are picked in the Workers Lottery to be the new immigration inspector on the border of Arkstozka, and it is up to you to ensure those attempting to enter the country have the right papers, that anything they give is legitimate, and that anyone trying to bring in contraband items are stopped from doing so. You’re not an action hero, you’re not special – there are many others out there ready to take your place until you screw up or die.
No pressure, then.
At its core, Papers, Please is a puzzle game with adventure game elements thrown in, with most of the action taking place on one screen split into two sections. The game gradually introduces the various interactions, allowing the player to get used to approving or rejecting applications, and increases the difficulty at a steady pace. This is done in a number of ways – only allowing fellow Arkstozkans through to begin with, then introducing ID cards to go with passports, or adding work permits into the mix. As the game progresses, players will be expected to ensure paperwork isn’t out of date, or that photos match the person in front of them, or that names and ID numbers are the same across all documents. However, the real challenge comes from identifying faults quickly as each in-game day only lasts between five and ten minutes as the player is only paid for each person successfully processed during that time. Adversely, making more than two mistakes (or purposefully helping some out illegally) will result in the player being penalized in their overall pay.
This is where things get interesting (or desperate, depending on how well the day has gone) as the player needs to look after their family by paying rent, buying food, and turning on heating. This makes analysing documents much more pressing, as failing to bring in the cash will force the player to decide between starving, freezing, or even deciding which family member gets medicine. On top of this, the game thrusts the player into a storyline that, while providing many comical moments, will have them making decisions on both a grand and moral scale. Do you turn away person without a permit after they tell you that life-saving surgery awaits them across the border? Do deny someone with legal paperwork just because someone asks you to for their own safety? After all, you’ll be fined if you do it too often…
As such, I’ve learned that I would be an excellent border control officer, but a terrible human being.
It is horribly bleak at times when the game reminds the player how downtrodden their character is (at regular intervals) but this is where the pixelated art style blends with the setting perfectly, with the broken English translations adding an entertaining (if slightly stereotypical) touch to proceedings. The generally grey palette makes the more important aspects, such as the green and red visa stamps, stand out with more impact, allowing the player to react to items quickly as they need to when the going gets hectic later on. Players will have four or more documents to juggle around, with more thrown in if a discrepancy is found, and this is where the limited desk space will challenge players. I found myself organising my virtual workspace before starting off the day (or stage) and tried to ensure that I could reach everything (but like the best laid plans it didn’t always go according to plan) As such, some players may find the lack of space an additional (and frustrating) challenge.
Eventually the player has to deal with extra tasks on top of their desk job – coping with bombs and helping out with security, for example – which helps to mix up the monotony of what is essentially an elaborate game of Spot The Difference Point-and-Click Edition, but overall the events that happen in Papers, Please are set in stone. Terrorists will always attack at specific points, regardless of the player’s performance, and considering there are 20 different endings to discover I found it really pushed the boundaries of repetitiveness despite the slight variation in names and faces. In a time where procedurally generated content is used more and more, it’s a shame that Papers Please remains so relatively static.
Thankfully, the save file systems allows players to jump back to any previous day over the course of their month-long stint (and even provides alternate save file paths so overwriting doesn’t become an issue) but I feel that only the most dedicated of completists will find the energy to discover every possible fate for their character. This isn’t helped by the occasionally frustrating feeling that will overcome the player when they apparently miss out on certain details and are fined for it. The amount of time I swore at the screen when I was told I had missed a spelling mistake or conflicting detail had me turning into the gaming equivalent of John McEnrow.
Once the story mode is completed (or survived, depending on your outlook) players can unlock an Endless version of the game that does away with the plot, although with the unlock code being universal it is possible to do a quick search for it (something the creator intended.) Timed, Endurance, and Perfection modes come with their own online leaderboards (if the game is played on Steam) allowing players to compete for the best possible performance. It is this competitiveness that gives life to the Endless version because without the colourful cast of characters from the story mode I feel it could have been too repetitive, but thankfully this is not the case. Either way, the main story takes around 10 hours to complete, so anything after that is just gravy.
It is hard to deny that on paper (pun not intended) it doesn’t come across as a game that would be any fun, and admittedly it doesn’t bring anything new to the industry in terms of mechanics, but what it does do is blend everything together into an addictive and entertaining (if regularly frustrating) package that, just like its aesthetic design, ultimately create a memorable experience. Now, move along. Cause no trouble.
- A unique spin on puzzle and adventure games.
- Fantastic art style that fits the tone of the game perfectly.
- Multiple endings to find in an entertaining storyline…
- … although this, the static nature of the plot is a little disappointing.
- Despite being addictive, finding all the endings will be a test of patience.
- Repetitiveness may hinder some players’ enjoyment.
The Short Version:
It shouldn’t work, it shouldn’t be fun, but what Lucas Pope has crafted with Papers, Please is a pixelated triumph that blends point-and-click mechanics and a charming artstyle with increasingly fiendish observation puzzles. This is one indie game you should not miss. Glory to Arkstozka!