Papers, Please is an indie game that won many awards after its initial release on the PC. With the game launching last weekend on the iPad, we wasted no time in downloading it and within minutes, we were hooked. After playing it for a day, we found ourselves telling our friends and family about how great this game is.
And that is the hard part. When you think games, the words shooting, running, or jumping come to mind. Papers, Please is an unusual game because it has none of these elements. The game makes you take up a desk job and scrutinise documents. Its appeal lies in its storytelling, and how it makes you live through difficult decisions. To explain that to someone who has not played the game is quite difficult, as we realised while sharing our experience about the game.
The responses we got were universally negative. The friends laughed at us first: "You're actually checking documents in a game? How stupid is that? Hahaha..." Family members joked: "If you write about such silly games, I'll post negative comments on the site."
That's because Papers, Please is perhaps the first "dystopian document thriller", where you don't play a spy or a soldier. Instead, you're just a government official at a checkpoint, screening people's passports and other documents. Your job is to keep the spies, terrorists and criminals out of your country. Papers, Please is an office simulator, and it doesn't miss even one boring detail, but it is a great demonstration of how games can put you firmly in someone else's shoes.
The negative reactions from those who haven't played the game partly describe its beauty - the game is hard to describe. The "office-work" metaphor is apt but it fails to capture how gripping the game can be, as it makes you live through difficult choices and decisions whose outcomes are not clear beforehand - just like real life.
First released for the PC and Mac in August 2013, the game was critically acclaimed for its immersive experience and the morally ambiguous choices it offers the player. Its developer Lucas Pope said the game's origins lie in the tense experience that is airport immigration. He told Culture Mass, "I live in Japan and do a fair bit of international travel. Going through airport immigration is always a tense experience and I thought the whole setup could be molded into something fun." In this kind of a game, the setting plays a huge part in creating the tense atmosphere.
In Papers, Please, you play as a citizen of Arstotzka, a fictional communist country that has just ended a six-year war with neighbouring nation Kolechia in 1982. After the war, the fictional town of Grestin is divided into two parts - West Grestin (in Kolechia) and East Grestin (in Arstotzka). The border is heavily guarded and an outpost is set up to screen those who want to enter Arstotzka. Your name is drawn up in the October labour lottery and your job is to serve at the border outpost. Nothing sets the scene as well as the game's excellent soundtrack. It has just the right tone for a game that portrays hard times for common folk and the tough choices ahead of you.
The game starts out fairly easy as you only need to check a couple of documents to decide whether to let people enter Arstotzka. You're paid for each person who enters the country, but send the wrong people through and you're issued citations, fines and can even be sent to jail. You have to maintain a balance between sending away suspicious people, and taking chances so that you earn enough to pay the bills.
At first, all you need to inspect are passports and entry permits, and making a lot of money is easy. As the game progresses, you'll be struggling to keep up with the number of documents you need to check and the actions you need to take before approving or denying applications. You'll have to juggle between screening tools like fingerprint scanners and weight checks to look out for the smallest discrepancies in people's documents.
One of the screening tools at your disposal is the body scanner, which was the subject of a minor controversy with Apple. The game lets you choose whether you want to see nude pixelated images of those you search using the body scanner. Apple initially rejected the game and asked Pope to remove nudity. After the game's launch, Apple reversed its decision and the developer said App Store reviewers had misunderstood the game's nudity option. An update brought the option back.
Papers, Please makes you balance your own need for money with your safety, and the desperate pleas of the people at your counter. You'll be caught between doing what's right and following the rulebook to avoid censure (and even pay cuts). You're allowed to make only two mistakes each day - after that your pay gets docked. As a result, there's a lot of pressure acting on the player to keep your family together in hard times.
Will you take bribes to let in people with invalid documents? If you don't, your starving family members may die. A couple fleeing an oppressive regime will seek entry to Arstotzka. If they don't enter the country, they'll be killed. But only one of them has valid documents. Are you willing to separate the couple?
Choices like these make the game deeply engrossing. Some players will opt for the morally bankrupt route while others will find themselves emotionally invested in the game. Your choices influence the game's ending, so if you survive 31 gruelling days of working as an immigration officer you will be served one of the game's 20 endings. If you made dubious moral choices in the first playthrough, you can always make the right calls when you play again.
Papers, Please may have arrived on the iPad almost 18 months after its PC release, but it feels like it was meant to be played on the iPad. Essential gameplay elements such as checking and returning documents, pressing various buttons to activate other tools such as the body scanner - all of these are best suited to the touchscreen. Since the game locks you to portrait mode on the iPad, it could use a slight bump in resolution. This would enable players to manage multiple documents better. It's a bit hard to scan and compare six documents with the limited desk space in the game.
That minor complaint aside, the game offers an experience rich enough to engross casual and serious gamers alike.
Papers, Please is available for Rs. 490 on the App Store (iPad-only).
You can also buy the game for Windows, Mac, Linux and Steam via Humble Store for Rs. 620.