You shall not pass! (Without the correct documentation.)

If you have ever enjoyed the adventure of international travel, you will likely have a story or two about a stone-faced immigration official grilling you about what your intentions are in their country. Whether or not your documents are in order, that immigration official has the power to refuse you entry at any time.

Depending on where you are in the world, and on the character of the government representative behind the desk, passing through border checkpoints can be an intimidating affair.

Now, turn the clock back to 1982 and plonk yourself in a fictional Eastern Bloc nation of Arstotzka, where your nation – in its infinite wisdom – has recently ended a six year war with neighbouring Kolechia. The border is now open and you have been selected by the fair process of labour lottery to represent the Ministry of Admission as an Immigration Inspector. You and your family have been relocated to the border town of Grestin where you will now live in modest dwellings.

Glory To Arstotzka

This motto is proudly noted at the end of all your official correspondence from the government hierarchy, the red eagle emblem of the State a burning symbol of your country’s communist rule. Each day you are given instructions according to the Arstotzka’s latest foreign policies and expected to uphold them. You are paid accordingly to how many would-be immigrants that you process, pressuring you into an efficient work flow with minimal mistakes. Every slip up will result in first a warning and then a penalty – attention to detail is paramount.

Papers Please

Will you be lenient on this man’s wife?

The setting in Grestin is displayed on the top half of the screen, a seemingly never ending line of shadowy citizens mill around waiting for their chance to cross into Arstotzka. Armed border guards wearing Ushankas keep the peace and can be called to arrest suspicious citizens if required.

You are paid accordingly to how many would-be immigrants that you process, pressuring you into an efficient work flow with minimal mistakes. Every slip up will result in first a warning and then a penalty – attention to detail is paramount.

The bottom half of the screen is where you spend the majority of your 12 hour work days, checking documents and keeping a vigilant eye out for those wishing to smuggle in contraband or otherwise threaten Arstotzka with terrorist acts. It starts with simple spot the difference exercises; expiry dates, correlating passport numbers and quizzing the folks who have missing documents or discrepancies. You soon learn to how to make the cumbersome process more efficient by keeping your desk neat and orderly and systematically working your way through the data. It’s easy to double and triple check everything to avoid a penalty, but remember you are not getting paid by the hour. Back at home you have expenses for rent, food, heating and any medicine your sick family members require, so keep pushing through those poor and huddled masses if you want to survive.

It all sounds quite tedious and, in a way, it is, but every day brings in new parameters for admission to your great nation. You can fingerprint and search to see if peoples stories check out, but that all takes up precious time. Keeping up the quick processing time as rules become harsher and more Draconian gets incredibly stressful. People will attempt bribes, submitting forged documents and even just begging for you to let them through to avoid persecution from their homeland. If you fail to search those bearing contraband you will read about the consequences in the newspaper the following day and stricter border rules may be applied by your superiors.

Sometimes an attack on the border is inevitable and you go home with a third of your usual salary and have to prioritise your spending between medicine for the mother-in-law or keeping the heat on to keep your other family members healthy. It’s an experience that makes you realise how comfortable our Western, capitalist lives really are.

Choose Life

Papers, Please may seem like a simulator of boring bureaucratic busywork, but at the end of the day the game is about choices. Not the coloured dichotomy of good and evil we’ve seen in a million RPGs, but real life moral decisions. Personal appeals are a daily affair, whether it’s to let the wife of the man you just admitted through despite her missing entry permit or the girl who pleads you deny entry to the man behind because he is in the business of human trafficking and plans to sell her into a world of prostitution. There’s no room for a paragon in the world of Papers, Please, often it’s either you or them. And by you, I mean your entire family, so forget about self sacrifice for the greater good.

There are over 20 endings to the game, all affected by said choices. Opportunities are dangled in front of you every day but compromising your integrity for the sake of yourself and your family will eventually come back to haunt you. However, playing it straight and narrow will lead to a slowly depreciating bank account and eventual eviction. It’s one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenarios, a survival game with no zombies or creatures, just you, your stamp and the ominous ability to mess with peoples lives for your own gain or the glory of Arstotzka.

And that’s the addicting quality of Papers, Please. You start by being the best that you can be, but soon you are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Where that choice takes you is a compelling path that will keep you engrossed for hours. It does seem Rogue-like with the sudden endings, but the game does let you start from any day in the timeline so you can experiment with key decisions without resetting to the beginning.

A review code of Papers, Please was provided courtesy of 3909. The game was reviewed on PC.

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