On paper the concept of working as a border checkpoint agent doesn’t at all sound like something that makes for an exciting video game. Approving passports, looking for discrepancies and determining whether people can cross over all sounds like very mundane work. But 3903 LLC’s recently released game Papers, Please show, at least within the confines of a video game, it’s an occupation which can be exciting, challenging and very dangerous. Based on the real life travel experiences of the 3909 LLC’s owner, Lucas Pope, Papers, Please is an independently developed puzzle game that is not just unique in how it frames its challenge but does something rare in a puzzle game: it tries to tell a story. That along with its very concept results in one of the most intriguing games released this year.
Taking place in 1982, Papers, Please is set in the fictional country of Arstotzka which draws parallels to the real life Soviet Union. After a conflict lasting six years with its neighbor, Kolechia, Arstotzka reclaims the town of Grestin. Promptly afterwards the border there is opened up and a lottery is held to determine who will work as a checkpoint agent. Players control the nameless character chosen and for the duration of the game ensuring the right people are allowed into the territory. Failure to do well could result in being pushed into the street or even execution.
Both are fates that could be the result over the main story’s length of a few weeks — this length can be shorter though if players perform certain actions in the game — players will take part in a story full of political intrigue, tragedy and violence. Almost all of which is played out in the checkpoint area the main character is assigned to and taking place entirely from their perspective. It’s a story that tackles many themes including loyalty, politics and morality. Even the issue of borders and their existence is subtly touched upon.
To find such a richly complex story in a puzzle game is rare and it’s a story that is done well. All’s the pity that it is so short and is one of this part of the game’s weak points. Even with 20 endings to experience and numerous subplots, the tale ends more quickly than it should. While long enough to experience the game’s immerse world, the story deserves to go on even longer.
Though the story is one of the the highlights of the game, the gameplay itself is also. Players must use their wits and deductive skills consistently to ensure passports carried by immigrants are valid while obeying the rules set down by the game’s authoritarian government. Players will have no problems getting started doing this as the game is designed with simplicity in mind. Using just the mouse, players can examine documents, interview immigrants and find discrepancies almost all of which are done by a mere click of the mouse or holding and dragging.
Despite the game’s interface being easy to operate, the challenge is another story. Players may find the initial stages of the game easy but as time goes on and events develop, players will have to deal with an ever growing rulebook, increasing forgeries, more shady individuals and may even find themselves in moral dilemmas with a few of the game’s many immigrants. Even with the aid of devices which are added as the game progresses, should players ever reach day 20, they’ll by that point be in a Kafkaesque pile of regulations and danger. It all creates a terrific difficulty sure to keep players enthralled.
If the threat of doing poorly on the job is bad enough, players must also tend to their family in a mini-management section after each day. After players perform a day’s work, they must manage their money wisely into paying rent, buying food and maintaining heat. Should payments get too low players may risk having one or more family members becoming sick or eventually dying.
To say the least, the game is very tense and challenging but forgiving enough to include a checkpoint system that can start players at the beginning of each day they begin work. This makes it easier to complete the game and achieve one of the game’s many endings. It can go on even longer with an unlockable endless mode allowing players to play without any limitation incentivizing them to return again and again. Overall gameplay in Papers, Please is very well-made and engaging to boot.
Drawn in a 2D style resulting in a look that harkens back to older games. This is mixed with a style of art reminiscent of the kind used in communist propaganda which was prevalent especially during the time of the Soviet Union. It’s a unique combination that gives the game a distinctive look and identity extremely fitting to the game’s communist setting. But the game goes even further to paint a very bleak, dystopian atmosphere that is often associated with communist countries. From the rugged looks of the characters encountered to the grimness of the checkpoint area where the bulk of the game is spent, the world of Papers, Please is very bleak. The visuals in the game speak a different story about the supposedly grand country its rulers and headlines seen in the game attempt to make it out to be. Such graphics are often hard to accomplish with the kind of pixelated style that Papers, Please uses. But this game is one of those times where such a style is able to succeed. They not only look look superb but add atmosphere while also being invaluable in painting the world of Papers, Please.
Further contributing to the game’s atmosphere is a wonderful soundtrack which is a terrific throwback to music associated with the Soviet Union. The opening song alone sets the tone of the game’s atmosphere welcoming players with a memorable theme that has to be heard to be truly enjoyed as does the rest of the soundtrack. Once players enter the game and play, their experience is accompanied by excellent effects that do well in emulating the feel of working at a border checkpoint. From the loudspeaker to the murmur of the crowd, you are, in a virtual sense, working at a border checkpoint.
This part of the game is not without issues though. There’s very few music tracks in the game. Overall there are only three tracks in the game resulting in a very minimal score that is lacking in quantity. Such an enjoyable composition deserves more than that number. Flaws aren’t just limited to to the music. Effects too can also start becoming monotonous after a time due to a lack of variety. This is very likely intentional in order to capture the monotony of working as a checkpoint agent. Even if true, there was no harm in better improving on this part of the audio.
Papers, Papers is an engaging and thought provoking game sure to entertain puzzle game enthusiasts and even gamers not into the genre as well. It’s undoubtedly one of the most surprising titles to come from the independent gaming development community if only because of how successfully it pulls off its unorthodox formula. This is a game that should not be missed by gamers who want a serious minded puzzle game with the bravery to make players think beyond just solving puzzles. Like a passport, this game gets a big stamp of approval.