Video games are amazing, in them you can be anything you want; a Casanova, a starship pilot, a legendary adventurer or even a passport control officer. Papers Please is a small indie title from the mind of Lucas Pope released way back in 2013 and has you taking over a border control post in the mighty country of Arstotzka, You have a “won” a lottery for the post and must now see yourself and your small family through the next thirty-one days.
Each day you go to work and must make your way through the giant queue of people outside your small booth. With the click of a mouse on the antiquated looking speaker system atop your shack the people will head inside and you must cross reference what they say with what they give you, double check their passport for the appropriate country and issuing city along with basic facts like photo, height, weight and gender. As you progress through the game you can make your way up to full body photos taken at the drop of a hat, finger print recognition and the ability to have people carted away by the authorities waiting outside. If you get something right you will be paid, if you get something wrong you will be fined, the money you have left at the end of the day can either be put toward upgrading your booth or feeding your family and more often than not it will come down to one of the other.
All of this is repeated the following day and the one after without fail though with each day it seems you will receive new rules, regulations and red tape to wade through like a duck on a swamp. This all helps to add to the story of the game and though you never really leave your little booth or get to spend much time with anyone there is a good story here. Over time you will see your country rise up and gain paranoia and an iron fist as it isolates itself from the apparently increasingly hostile world around it. This grounds eye view point of the rise of ‘Oceania’ is an interesting and clever one as you must focus on how this affects you and the family you are trying to support instead of witnessing the bigger picture. In fact you will often by so busy with the different documents and lies that you won’t realise the state the country around you is in. Indeed all you will able to truly rely on is your little brown book which keeps track of all the countries and cities along with each new rule you must follow.
The game is split screen with your attention divided between the person before you and your desk where you can check over any items and most importantly stamp passports with a success or fail. This to me helps add to the hectic nature of what would typically be quite a sedate and simple little game of spot the difference. The fact that the clock is hidden away in the bottom left hand corner, flashing when the day is coming to an end, also helps to divert your eyes meaning that you are often scrambling around more than you should be to get as many through in a day as you can. This is not a criticism of the game and along with the very unique art style that looks to be something out of a very early point and click adventure, gives a very dark and oppressive feel.
Even though most people will, logically, only pass through once and meet you for a few scant minutes you will remember them and become interested in their tales. Most of these if not everyone you meet will offer you a choice but like FTL it will not merely add points to a scale of evil to sainthood but add to the story unfolding before you. For instance early in the game a young woman passes through pleading with you to not let a man following her through. Should the man get through you have been told that he will take her passport and trap her in a life of sin and debauchery and yet when the man enters shortly after he is holding all the correct paper work and a friendly smile upon his face and mentions nothing of the situation before you. You know what you have been told but do you care? Can you risk another fine? After all you have had the heating off for two days now and your wife needs the medication for her illness.
Likewise when you do finally encounter the rising resistance at the end of what I would call the first act you can listen or simply wave them through, join or report them, accept their bribes or burn the money and stick your fingers in your ears. The question of whether you take the loaded gun is entirely up to you and though several of these choices can end the game before the thirty one days are up it all feels like it is simply building on the story, your story.
However it is perhaps best not to dwell on stories of rebellion and uprising for that would be a spoiler, but also I think and false advertisement for the game. For each day you must trundle up to your booth and check the passports before you, scroll through the paper work and when action does strike, like a bombing or other such attack you will often be simply cursing that it has cut your day short leaving the heating off for one more day. The game is a little easier than some of the others I have mentioned but do not under estimate it whilst playing. A clever, unique concept that while I enjoyed playing I probably wouldn’t want to run through again anytime soon. There are purportedly over fifteen endings to the game and achievements to go with almost all of them so if that is your cup of tea then I can see a few play-throughs as a distinct possibility though I would like to space them apart with something a bit more upbeat and a little more action packed.
Despite sticking you in a booth the game has a rich collection of characters that pass through your gates with more than you would expect returning, sometimes for another go and sometimes to further the tale of the world around you. Just like how 1984 told the story of Big Brother from the ground floor perspective of a nobody who ends up going nowhere here you watch a rebellion and uprising unfold around you all the while requiring you to think about the family you have to support via the job you hate. The detective work required to spot the fakes and imposters keeps the game from ever being truly dull though often dark and questionable in its morals.
$4.99 on G.O.G
£6.99 on Steam