Even the simplest of tasks can be turned into a game. A monotonous chore like administrative work is enough for Papers, Please to create an engaging game with social issues stowed underneath it. It shows, in ludic terms, how ridiculous bureaucracy can get and as a whole can bring humanity back. With nonsensical, ever-changing rules and daily tribulations to overcome, there rarely is a dull moment in the mundane life of a border control officer. It’s almost poetic how melancholic that is.
Being an immobile pion of the man in charge, most of the game is played in one screen, at some Eastern European border. A bleak, pixelated view shows the huddled masses awaiting their turn to be called for their papers. In the passage booth, one side is reserved for applicants while another gives a detailed look of all incoming paperwork. As exciting as it sounds, this static screen is as void of bright coloring as one would expect from this soul-crushing illustration. Bombastic, instrumental tracks run in the background to give this depressing setting a fitting finish. In this game, stimulation is not productive; a clean and contrasting look is a lot more efficient. Feelings are irrelevant.
A first layer of gameplay follows a similar script. People come in, hand in their files and these must be processed carefully to either approve entrance to the country or deny it. Details must be checked, such as making sure that date of birth matches all papers. Expiration dates can void even valid documents, but other discrepancies may also point towards forgeries. Only those with the correct identification may pass the border. Wrongfully admitting or denying anyone access to the nation will result in reprimands. Mess up too many times and pay will be deducted, which is required to maintain a family at the end of the day. These unemployed ingrates need to be clothed and fed, in order to survive and they don’t show anything for it in return. They’re like little money parasites, but it’s probably best to keep them alive anyway. It may look bad to intentionally starve and kill an entire family.
Additionally, the game will periodically throw more conscious issues through the checkpoint. Some people may pass, who don’t have the right documents, but do offer a sob story about their trials. Here, it’s the player’s decision to cut these saps some slack and let them through, at the expense of a citation. Since too many errors result in fines and money is needed to feed the family, it’s always a tough choice to let any sympathy shine through in this job.
Things get even trickier once the cogs of bureaucracy start turning. Rules of admission change daily and expand frequently. Foreigners may need additional papers, but asylum seekers can also go without, but they do need alternate documents with a valid stamp. Then, some nations will be barred access, because of political tensions. Soon, the checkpoint becomes a madhouse of preposterous changes, which clogs up the system, as people may still pass through with older rule sets, which have to be denied.
Changing up the tempo constantly works on multiple levels. For one, diligence must stay at peak levels at all times, since even the slightest detail slip can cause a citation. With everything constantly switching, there’s no monotony when it comes to checking documents. Certainly as the booth expands to facilitate systems like fingerprints, body scans, confiscations and more, there will be more than enough different mechanisms to keep the mind occupied. On the other hand, people will bring their own story to these ever-changing elements. For instance, a corrupt guard will ask to detain people and offer a kickback as compensation, while another official may demand to give a pass to an undeserving person, because they’re superior and therefore must be heard. There are several other subplots woven into this strange machine of rule-filled cogs; all turning and churning in different ways. Keeping up with them all may prove to be a lot more difficult than it seems at first. Its true strength stands in the inconspicuous manner in which alternate designs are brought to the table. At any time, the main goal is just to process papers like a zombie and carry on, but the people passing through it will change this system radically, one conversation at a time.
Still, monotony is not a given pastime for everyone and try as it may, the game does fall into some irking repetition now and then. It serves a purpose, to keep players alert, but it can become a bit demotivating at times, even for a game. In that aspect, it shows exactly how tedious government work can be. More so than that, the simplistic presentation can periodically cause some aesthetic issues with pictures or hard to decipher scripts. As any error is brutally punished, in a game that already has a tight economy, flaws like these can become quite the annoyance. It may just be paperwork, but this routine is wound tight and challenges players at every turn. Even when times are good, it will find a way to knock the bleak outlook back into the game. Entertainment comes from the satisfaction of a job well done; no cheap tricks here.
Though Papers, Please is a tiring venture into the world of governmental antics, it does a steady job of infusing the game with many subtle implementations that keep players coming back. It’s both necessary to be a diligent work drone and at the same time have some heart for misfortunate people walking by; all that in a strange and volatile, political climate. Life is tough; better make a game about it.
Papers, Please is out now on GOG.com for $9.99 and comes with bonus games.