Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Papers, Please

Post-Launch Review
Papers, Please
Developer: Lucas Pope
Released: August 2013
Played: 2h36min; 3/20 endings unlocked


In Papers, Please, the player takes the role of a border checkpoint officer for the (fictional) country of Arstotzka in the late 1980s. The player is in charge of permitting or denying access to Arstotzka, and must adapt to ballooning regulations and balance the dangers of noncompliance against ethics and financial need.

At Launch 

Papers, Please received critical praise, earning average review scores of 85%. Reviewers were impressed with the emotionality created by the game's realism and immersion, though many critics found the game tedious and had a hard time continuing.

Post Launch

Several patches have been issued to fix various bugs, mostly small. Some inappropriate immigrant names have been removed - before launch, fans could submit information to be used as character names, but some of the submissions turned out to reference real celebrities, copyrighted characters, or inappropriate translations or pronunciations.

You might think that a video game where you play as a border guard inspecting papers might be boring. You'd be a little bit right, but also surprisingly wrong.

The gameplay itself is pretty monotonous and repetitive. Mostly what you're doing is checking papers for regulation discrepancies - like whether the place of issue is correct, or whether the expiry dates are valid. More and more regulations are added as time goes on, so eventually you'll be checking for work passes, matching fingerprints, searching for contraband, and keeping an eye out for persons of interest.

You get paid for every person you correctly allow through the checkpoint, but not for those you correctly turn away or detain. Your work day is timed, so the number of people you can see in a day depends on how quick you are. Your first two mistakes in a day aren't penalized, but you lose money for subsequent mistakes.

The end of the day is where things really get interesting. You have expenses. You have to pay rent, and to keep your family healthy, you need to pay for food and heat. If they get sick, you have to pay for medecine. And if you ever fall into debt, you're arrested for delinquency. All of this means that you want to pass as many people you can, as quickly as possible - but the faster you go the more likely you are to make mistakes and have your pay docked.
And to make you feel even worse, sometimes the game will throw desperate refugees at you, who will be killed if you send them back to their home country - except they don't have all the paperwork they need. You have to decide if breaking the rules to save a life is worth risking your job and the health of your family.

Of course, if you're paying attention, you'll notice that you can make two mistakes per day with no penalty - you don't lose pay until the third error. So if you make no mistakes, you can deliberately allow two people to enter the country who don't meet the requirements. You can sneak in the refugees who will otherwise die, and get paid for doing it. Everybody wins!

That is, until your supervisor shows up and says "You've received 17 citations. That's too many. You're making me look bad, and the district inspector will be here tomorrow. I'd better not see any more violations."

All of this is pretty brilliant and comes across as quite a powerful simulation of the moral dilemmas and tedium of being a border checkpoint guard. But since the simulation is very accurate, the core gameplay is boring. I have a hard time playing more than an hour at a time, because no matter what changes and developments occur day to day, I'm still just shuffling papers.

The game also makes it pretty difficult to experience its story, which is hidden away in small events that may appear meaningless. Again, this fits the theme, but if you play games for the story you'll have trouble finding it - especially when the game tricks you into making mistakes. For example, an intelligence officer approaches your booth and informs you that there are certain groups making trouble for the country, and asking you to hand over any information you come across, with an implied threat if you don't. So I handed over the suspicious papers I'd been given a few days ago... and got arrested for associating with criminals. Fortunately the game saves at the start of every day, and if you make a single mistake like that, you can easily restart the day and choose another option.

Recommendation: play it.

 Papers, Please is one of those games that's good but not fun. I would absolutely recommend trying it out for at least a couple of hours because of how effectively it creates moral dilemmas and allows you to get a new perspective on how it might be to work at a border checkpoint (or even an airport). You'll be surprised at how stressful and emotional a game about paperwork can be.

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