Papers, Please is about freedom. About granting it, taking it away, and discovering how much you can snatch for yourself in a world where something as fundamental as what you do for a living is strictly controlled. It’s a stark, bleak game of surprising thematic unity, and a powerful demonstration of the kinds of stories players can take part in, even when their own agency is strictly restrained.
Papers, Please casts you as an immigration officer for a fictional Soviet state, which has recently reopened its borders. The mechanics surrounding this idea coldly study not just the powers wielded by such bureaucrats, but also the strange tedium found in exercising them: people’s lives hinge on the way that visa stamp falls, and in order to retain your job you must scour documents in search of contradictions. There’s a dry satisfaction in spotting someone trying to illegally sneak into Arstotzka, certainly, but if the process sounds thrilling then we’re being grievously misleading.
There’s a certain tactile pleasure in working with these documents, thanks to the papery rustle of work permits and passports, the skilful weaving of tutorials and updates into your handbooks and daily memos, and the satisfying thwack of a freshly stamped visa rejection. You can’t be lulled too gently into the rhythm of a working day, however, because you have a family to feed, and immigration officers get paid on commission. Your familial commitments aren’t drawn in the same greying, artfully impoverished detail as your working life, though: ‘home’ is little more than a spreadsheet of incomings and outgoings that pops up at the end of each shift.
As the game continues it adds complexity in two ways, the first of which is a Kafkaesque increase in the number of forms to be checked and compared. This gets fiddly and awkward, which is presumably the point. The second is a slow drip-feed of unusual, unexpected requests from the characters – applicants, officials, diplomats and guards – who appear in your booth. Sometimes these are little more than one-shot stories but they may, depending on your decisions, start a plot thread that runs through the rest of the game. These stories are the soul of Papers, Please: tales of sedition, corruption or plain human misery that always come down to paper and the horrific way it can dictate lives.
Games have mastered action – the amplified and instant reward – but Papers, Please finds satisfaction in the tedium of bureaucracy, and twins it with genuinely human stories and an underlying, dread-filled tension. It’s rare to play a game about something, about a time, a place and a theme, and for a game to embody those ideas from meaning right down to mechanics.
Papers, Please is out now on PC and Mac. PC version tested.