Made and Published by Lucas Pope
Played on: Microsoft Windows and PS Vita
Also available on: IOS, Linux, and Mac OS
The war between Arstotzka and Kolechia has ended, with the Arstotzkan military taking back the country’s rightful half of the city of Grestin. Refugees from both sides attempt to reach their respectful country after the dust settles. To respond to this growing need for a controlled border, the Arstotzkan Department of Immigration decides to hold a lottery for the new position of inspector at the East Grestin border checkpoint. Your name is pulled, and you must dutifully answer the call to country while filled with purpose to your new post. But as you serve your country, or depending on your mindset, serve your oppressive overlords, a conspiracy is brewing to disrupt the East Grestin checkpoint. While working, terror attacks and crime are all but common at the new border checkpoint. The player must decide who he sides with, how far is he willing to go to help them, and ultimately must fulfill his duty, because both sides will punish him if he doesn’t.
Papers Please is a minimalist game about working as a document inspector in the fictitious communist country of Arstotzka. The goal of the game is to process as many people as possible before the end of the day so that the player can earn money and keep his family alive. Processing immigrants goes as follows. You call them up to the inspection booth. They will then hand you multiple papers, with the number of papers to check increasing as the game continues. You then check these papers to find anything that could give you a reason to reject the person, such as an expired passport or fraudulent entry permit. This is the typical flow of gameplay. It may seem boring, but there is far more to it than meets the eye.
As the game progresses, the player will be given an increasing amount of duties to fulfill. At first, the game will start off simple, with the player merely having to check passports. But as the game progresses, people could have four or five documents, possess contraband, or be a wanted criminal. With each passing day, the player will have more and more to keep track of while their play time for each day stays the same. For every person that the player correctly denies or grants entry to, they will earn five dollars. The player can make two mistakes without losing any money. But after the third mistake, the player will be charged with citations ranging from 5-20 dollars, depending on how many mistakes they’ve made up to that point during the day.
Once the day ends, the player will have to spend their money on various necessities, such as heating, food, and medication. Sometimes the player can buy luxuries such as a better apartment or a birthday gift for their son if they have extra money. Anything left over will be put into savings or can be used for other expenses that pertain to the game’s story. Other than that, the gameplay stays the same, with many additions near the end of the game. But I won’t tell you those because they may spoil the plot.
While the game on it’s surface seems very simple and light on story, it is packed with many events that can radically change the outcome of the game. Some story bits may be a one time conversation with someone or a large scheme that will affect the fate of Grestin forever. While the story presents many paths for the player, such as dealing with government officials, radicals, and the many who are trying to abuse the immigration system, it also has a more lasting appeal with it’s subtle insights on Communist Eastern European countries of the Cold War. The government newspaper is called The Truth of Arstotzka, despite the fact that it praises the autocratic government and chronically lies about the border situation. The rebel group in the game, known as the Ezic Star, wants to use assassinations and terrorism to “free” the people of Arstotzka from their current regime’s tactics of terror. While none of this is explicitly implied to be about Eastern Europe under communist rule or about the various internal disputes within Yugoslavia during the same time, you can tell that the creator of the game, Lucas Pope, wanted to say so much about history while with such a seemingly simple game.
Even better is that the narrative has multiple endings. While the game has 20 endings, albeit many of them similar, it adds that extra layer of depth and uncertainty. Getting too many violations or being too upfront about your political leanings could be a game over for you. And with the game saving at the end of each day, you can replay the same day over and over and get multiple different endings based on your success or failure.
The art style of the game has its own layer of meaning. The color palette of the game is mostly dark, with the only bright colors being someone’s clothing. This is meant to show the dark nature of the game, as the situation no matter how it’s handled seems to end poorly for our devoted inspector. The drab array of colors adds to the oppressive feeling of doom as well. You can never tell when the next terror attack will be, or when the auditor will visit again to check on your activities. Even the soundtrack displays a sense of fear, with the main menu track fore fronted with heavy horns and a quiet piano-like instrument in the background.
For the rest of the review, I would like to talk about the differences between the PC and Vita versions. While the story, artwork, soundtrack, and game mechanics are unchanged, the Vita port needed some work before it could be released. To make up for the lack of a mouse, the porting team has the player use the front touch screen instead, which proves to be nearly as accurate. In the PC version, the map showing the line of immigrants at the entrance to East Grestin is above the booth where the person immigrating stands, which is left to where the player lays out the documents that need to be checked. For the most part, the Vita version uses the same set up, instead to cope with the smaller screen, the porting team has the map above the document screening area like the PC version, except when someone walks into the booth to be processed, their picture will appear above the document area, obscuring part of the map. At first, I was a bit skeptical of this design. But after playing for ten minutes, I got used to it and enjoyed my experience. I still think that the PC UI is better. But for having to use a smaller screen without a mouse, the Vita port does a great job of compensating. (Top: PC Bottom: Vita)
But even with being able to make up for the Vita’s drawbacks, the porting team didn’t fix all the issues. There are many times a person who it obviously a male will have a passport that claims they’re female. When the discrepancy is pointed out, the game won’t process it. If the person is let in, the player won’t get a citation. But it’s strange how it’s only men having female passports and not vice versa. I’m pretty sure the issue of LGBT rights isn’t that important in Arstotzka. And I’m not sure why an issue this specific is so prominent in the Vita version, as I don’t remember it being a frequent problem in the PC version. Another issue about the game is the shooting parts. As not to spoil the game, I won’t say why you have to shoot a gun. But this is the one drawback of the touchscreen. With the mouse and keyboard, the player could quickly lock onto a target and shoot. But when using your fingers, the target can get covered up, meaning that your shots are more likely to miss.
In conclusion, Papers Please is a great game at home and on the go. I love the gameplay and the storyline, as both provide many options and playthroughs that keep the game enticing. Lucas Pope has it spot on in the art department with the graphics and soundtrack matching and adding to his gray and black world of Arstotzka. The Vita port is great, despite it’s issues. I would recommend this game to everyone, regardless of platform or preference. There is a lot offered with Papers Please, and I bet that if I play the game again, I’ll find even more subtle points buried beneath the minimal frame.
I am giving Papers Please a 10 out of 10
Vita version: 9 out of 10
PC and Vita versions have great UI
Engaging and deep story
Surprisingly fun gameplay
Great art and soundtrack
Vita version has minor problems
Where to buy