Games [1ST2H]: Papers, Please

Got a couple of hours to kill? Got a list of unplayed games you’ve been meaning to get around to trying? 1ST2H looks at the first two hours spent playing a new game.


Platform played / Year released: PC / 2014

Developer / Publisher: 3909 LLC

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An indie game by highly regarded designer Lucas Pope, this is one I’ve wanted to play for ages – I’ve been hearing good things about it for years. The reviews are right; it’s a good game. But it isn’t one I’ll be playing too often.

Papers Please is something of a survival/puzzle/memory game, one that can be played in small chunks. It reminds us that a simple visual style and gameplay mechanic is all that is needed to create a fun gaming experience; one that can keep you interested and challenge you.

If you’ve not heard about it already, Papers Please puts you in the position of a soviet-era border check-point officer. You were selected by public lottery for the role, the pay is low, and you have a family to feed. You are faced with a queue of people wishing to cross into your fictional country of Arstotzka, and you are tasked with vetting their papers in order to approve or decline entry.

Get it right and you earn a little cash for the day. Get it wrong and you will be fined. And sometimes the boarder guards machine-gun them to death, too. Oops.

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This is it. This is the in-game experience. Here you will work, and possibly end up in debt. It’s depressingly realistic, like that.

The uses a daily loop that starts with your walk to work and ends with your tired retreat to sleep, back home. You close off each day by managing your paltry earnings against the need to pay for rent, food, heating and medicine. If you run out of cash, you get jailed and it’s game over.

It’s not all dreary, though. The game introduces a sense of humour pretty early on, in the conversations you have with people trying to cross the border and their sometimes hilarious excuses for not having the right documentation. It also has an evolving political story that unfolds through news updates and occasional interactions with management, dignitaries and other, shady, characters.

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Sometimes the problems with paperwork are clear. Other times, you need to stay sharp.

Aside from the stylised 8-bit level graphics and the strikingly bland visuals, capturing the low-tech feeling of a soviet-era checking station, the other standout feature of the design is that the entirety of the game is spent sitting in a too-small booth, one where you have to manage papers, transcripts, daily instructions, scanning equipment and approval stamps – all in a space that is not large enough to spread them out neatly. Documents quickly overlap and you have to dig back and forth to check them before you make each decision.

You’ll review passport number against entry visa. Photo against the person standing there. Gender. Expiry date of visa. Issuing office of passport. Seals to prove document is legitimate. All the while, you will try to remember if there is a relevant new rule for the day, fed by daily instructions and the overnight news updates. Neighbouring country has had a spy escape? Keep an eye out for them trying to access Arstozka. Insurrection brewing? Stay alert for contraband.

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Each day lasts for (I think) about ten minutes of real-time. Your daily earnings are based on correct approvals and correct detentions and barely let you scrape by. They can, however, be further supplemented through your interaction with people trying to get past you. I didn’t push it too far in my run-through – to start with – but you can accept bribes, work with secret societies, and try to turn a blind eye to people for a reward.

In story mode, if you do run our of money you are arrested and jailed as a debtor to society, and it’s game over. But you can restart the day and try to not run out. I ‘died’ twice on day ten, then made it through and on day eleven I was rewarded overnight with a huge (and suspicious) influx of cash. I maybe shouldn’t have accepted it. Maybe that will come back to bite me. The game says there are 20 possible endings, presumably influenced by how you choose to play.

So Papers Please is an engaging puzzle game, working against a daily clock and an ever-evolving set of rules that gets increasingly complicated. By optimising your work routine and memorising the rules you can start to earn a survivable amount of money through efficiency, progressing deeper into the unfolding political story that is happening around you.

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I didn’t do too well in this run-through…

I’d recommend this game to others, and am happy to see that it is also on iOS, as it feels like the kind of game that would be good to play on the go. My only problem with it is entirely personal, and a sign of how well it is designed. I quit a job a couple years back, one where the core work-day involved optimising my work routine and memorising an increasingly complex set of rules. That this game actually manages to remind me of that anxiety-inducing time is impressive, but for now limits my ability to play it despite knowing I’ll (overall) enjoy the time spent playing.

I’d say you should give it a whirl. It’s a game that deservedly built Lucas Pope’s reputation for gameplay design. His follow up title, Return of the Obra Dinn is very much on my to-play list. Glory to Arstotzka.

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