I wrote a beta preview of Papers, Please earlier this year and I mentioned that considering how tedious and repetitive its gameplay was on the surface, I thought it was a subtle way to make something as dull as paper-pushing actually fun. I expected quite a lot from one-man developer Lucas Pope due to Paper, Please’s effective way of portraying a socialist dystopian society rich with corruption in such a subtle way through document processing. Unfortunately, since I previewed its beta back in April, there hasn’t been many groundbreaking changes.
The gameplay is essentially the same in that the player still takes on the role of a poor civil servant that works in a cubicle where travel documents of dozens of potential illegal immigrants and possible terrorists must be inspected. It’s set in what seems like a poverty-stricken and politically unstable fictional country behind the iron curtain called Arstotzka in the 1980s so all work is done with everything an immigration officer would have in such a setting – his own objective judgement and consistent knowledge of (or willingness to obey) the rules.
The basic things to look out for when verifying the legitimacy of travel documents are the obvious: the complete set of required documents to enter, expiration dates, making sure the documents aren’t falsified by validating the places of issue and other information. Often, discrepancies are due to innocent mistakes like forgetting the required national ID for citizens along with the passport. However, most of the time, the reasons are a lot more blatantly deceptive and complicated.
Discrepancies are pointed out through this handy thing called Inspection Mode which basically lets you cross reference two pieces of information to verify whether they are consistent. Passport pictures, for example, can be cross-referenced with the immigrant or citizen’s face. Once a discrepancy has been spotted, the inspector is able to interrogate the person. In this case, the person must verify his or her identity through fingerprinting. If the prints don’t match, you can either just deny a visa and just let the person go or detain the impostor to be subject to the unrelenting Artstotzkan border police.
In other cases, such as with gender ambiguity, it is necessary that the person trying to go through the border must go through an x-ray. Sometimes, they’re smuggling in contraband of some sort but this only happens when there is the need to verify gender which is most probably why the Arstotzkan border gets bombed so much.
Every piece of information in Papers, Please is viable for cross-referencing which makes identifying discrepancies much more difficult. There are just so many things to consider that may or may not even be relevant. You’re given a set of guidelines, absolutely no clues, a huge variety of different cases and you are expected to accurately filter out inconsistencies. Often, even, the discrepancies are as subtle as minor spelling errors. Border laws and regulations also change depending on the political climate in Arstotzka, meaning you must always adapt to fickle protocol. One day, all those who hold a passport from the neighbouring country of Kolechia are subject to a “random” search then the next day, the Kolechians complain that Arstotzka is guilty of unnecessary racial profiling, the next day it’s back to normal but now there’s a new special protocol regarding diplomats.
The main point of the game isn’t as simple as being the best paper-pusher in socialist Arstotzka. The real goal is to keep your family sheltered, fed and healthy and you must do everything in your power to take care of them by any means possible, even if it means disobeying a ruthless and corrupt system with the risk of losing everything.
There have been a few new additions since the beta release of Paper, Please. The full version has more special events – from accepting bribes to aiding extremist anti-establishmentarians to simple depressing stories about asylum seekers.
Papers, Please’s Steam release has the inclusion of Tokens that are earned by successfully helping desperate immigrants by going against protocol. However, after a number of violations, the Ministry of Admissions will deduct a certain amount from your salary and, at the same time, the Tokens don’t actually do anything but give you an achievement in Steam. It’s not even worth it.
The inspectors booth may also be upgraded four times but it costs every time you upgrade. The problem with this is, the upgrades aren’t even worth it. The first upgrade lets you use the spacebar as a shortcut to Inspection Mode. The whole game can basically be played without even using the keyboard with one hand on a mouse making this “upgrade” highly redundant. The rest of the upgrades, which I won’t mention here, are just as useless and redundant. Also, what kind of dystopian socialist government will let its civil servants pay with their own money to upgrade/manipulate a booth that the government technically owns. Discrepancy detected.
Desperation versus the actuality of a moral grey area is the name of the game. Often you are posed with illegal immigrants that share the same desperation as you and it’s your decision to follow protocol and attempt to thrive in a low-paying job with horrible conditions or dispense justice wholly in contrast with a propagandist government. Of course, vigilante justice can have its perks (or not) but there’s no way of telling if it will in the long run.
The full version includes more events that are quite interesting but leaves more to the imagination than anything else. For example, secret societies are introduced but the game hardly gives it any context. Papers, Please gives you the vibe that your country sucks but it doesn’t actually tell you straight up why it sucks, I mean aside from my starving family and low-paying job. For all I know this secret society is probably making things worse. This makes the moral grey area greyer than next-gen graphics. Perhaps if I knew exactly how horrible my government is or how terrible this secret society is, I’d have a harder time deciding whose side I should take. However, when it comes to decisions, I don’t even think twice to question any sort of morality, I just do it for the sake of wanting to see what happens if I do.
Papers, Please is technically a non-linear game but with linear gameplay. There are several endings but the special events are not randomized. You can expect nearly the same situations with each playthrough. Though I did explain how its seemingly tedious gameplay can actually fun its menial nature and the game’s general lack of reward will catch up if you if decide to check out the alternate endings.
It is very unfortunate that Papers, Please’s full release lacked more of the innovative ideas that made its beta version a hit.