If you’d told me three weeks ago that I’d one day enjoy deliberating over digital passports and entry permits for hours on end, I’d have labeled you a nut and the concept impossible. Luckily, I’ve since played Papers, Please, a distinctly Cold War-esque entry to the dwindling genre of point-and-click adventure. However, as its membership in the Indie club implies, Papers, Please innovates upon its core foundation—in this case, point-and-click storytelling. Rather than leisurely leading the player, it hoists you into a pressuring world of endless time trials.
You play a border inspector who’s been forced into service by a labor lottery. Day after day, you begrudgingly walk to work with a 12-hour doom of repetition looming ahead of you, all while burdened by your family’s needs and expenses which often outstrip your meager income.
More than paperwork fills your life, though. Each new immigrant to approach your battered stand forces you to weigh the risk of government citation with the ethical choice of turning away a lost mother solely because her passport is out of date or detaining a destitute refugee who cannot afford the necessary paperwork. Every day comes paired with the possibility of terrorist attack, which you are poorly equipped to deal with, and you are forced to negotiate the increasingly complex back-room dealings of an assassin organization that could end your days as an inspector and leave your family on the street, but also bring you the easy money that you so ardently long for. All of this is told through a branching story with 20 different endings, leaving plenty of room for replay value.
Papers, Please is rendered in an ostensibly old-school 16-bit aesthetic, and the entirety of the gameplay consists of a whopping two menus. At the end of each work day, you budget your pay around rent, food, heating, and random costs through a simple expense list. However, the real meat lies within the actual border patrol, and boils down to slightly more than just pointing and clicking. As the game progresses, you are required to inspect and pass judgment on more and more documents that the procedurally generated immigrants present. Similarly, you’re also given more tools and criteria to work with, ranging from demographic information and personal testimony to the infamous “randomly selected” scans of travel.
This may sound simple — which it is — but the process of approving or denying immigrants is also incredibly nerve-wracking. You are paid according to how many people come to the border during its 12-hour day (about 10 minutes of game time), whether they make it through or not. This demands speed. However, you are only allotted two citations (i.e. screw-ups) per day without having your pay docked. This demands accuracy. This combo makes the otherwise monotonous task of inspecting aliases, cross-checking passport IDs and the like much more engaging, because you’re now racing against the omnipotent clock in the bottom-left corner.
The pressures of inspecting efficiently are further emphasized by the rate at which new responsibilities like confiscation are introduced, as well as through the game’s equally simple system of booth upgrading. If you can manage to raise the money, you have the opportunity to improve the game’s interface by assigning literal shortcuts to the inspection process by way of hotkeys. This shaves precious seconds off each processing period and adds a welcomed flare of variety to the gameplay. You'll also discover some interesting exploits in government regulations that could line your pockets, but at the expense of others.
The heavy music of Papers, Please complements the sobering atmosphere developed by the gritty aesthetic. The few in-game sound effects are also well-executed: Stamping, checking or analyzing documents is always followed with a satisfying ka-chunk or beep. Equally satisfying is the obscure dialogue, which forms more parallels with Animal Crossing than its Russian influences. Although interactions are text-based, all characters speak in an unnerving gibberish that distinguishes them from the main character, who is apparently limited to voicing one phrase. I’ll let you speculate on what that phrase is.
However, its design is not without flaws. 16-bit graphics aren’t exactly known for their visual accuracy, and this becomes a real problem when determining the height, or even gender of immigrants. There were several occasions where I replayed a day because I unwittingly let a few effeminate men slip through. And I swear some of those “women” had mustaches.
Seriously? I feel like Professor Oak.
The narrative is also a bit too presumptuous for its own good. Time trial elements aside, the key factor that assigns value to running the border is the welfare of the protagonist’s family. Despite this, we never see them. Little effort is put in to establishing an actual connection with your dependents, and I often found myself more concerned with a high score than feeding my family.
It’s a good thing the game’s creator, Lucas Pope, has dubbed Papers, Please “a dystopian document thriller,” otherwise I’d have no idea what to call it. The best definition I can come up with is sitting somewhere between Scratches and L.A. Noire, but that doesn’t really do the title justice. With a solid five to six hour campaign (depending on how you play) and an optional endless mode for the truly daring, Papers, Please is a wholly unique adventure title that forces the player to make some weighty moral decisions.