I primarily play video games as a form of escape from the mundane. This didn't really dawn on me until I got a job. Taking the same driving route to work, doing the same thing while there and finally taking the same driving route back home, day-in and day-out would be enough to drive me to suicide if I didn't have books, movies and games to distract when I get back from a stressful day at work.
So it's bizarre how much I love Papers, Please, which places you in the role of an immigration investigator, stationed at the border of your "glorious" eastern-bloc country. AKA: you sit in a booth all day and check peoples' passports, comparing those to your little rule book for consistences to determine if you'll let them in or not. Papers, Please revels in the mundane and repetitive, but damn if this unique concept isn't enthralling and masterfully executed.
"The October labor lottery is complete. Your name was pulled." As is the rule of all stories, unusual actions like this propels Papers, Please. With this stroke of good fortune, you and your family are moved into a class-8 dwelling, finally having a chance at a decent living. The job that you've been rewarded is that of an immigration investigator, handling every person who wants to enter your country and making sure that they have the official documentation required to do so.
You get paid for every person you process so efficiency is your top priority, as is thoroughness as you're only allowed two mistakes before you starting receiving penalties for your then myriad of mistakes. Your overreaching objective is to make enough money to pay the rent, utilities and other such necessities for your family. If you don't, then they will die, and then it's game over.
When boiled down to its core gameplay, Please, Please is basically a photo hunt game. You are shown a series of documents which you then have to compare against your rulebook to make sure everything is in order. Whether there is a difference between the two, you then can choose to deny or approve their entry, or interrogate the individual in question and hear their story and maybe find out why their documents are incorrect and fix them.
But unlike other photo hunt/puzzle games, Papers, Please's theme of the absurdity and cruelty of bureaucracy continually adds new layers to the gameplay. Each day of your job is very different as more restricting rules, heaps of more documents to examine and new tools are introduced. Almost every day a new set of tools or rules to follow are given to you, or a unique scenario which modifies your current tool set, with everything building up to the point where everything is basically unmanageable, but that's kinda the point.
Almost all of the different tools, from accessing your rulebook to stamping a "Denied" or "Approved" mark onto people's passports, is handled with an in-game inventory that are stored on your organizer, which you frequently then have to drag over to the right-side of the screen where you then can then manipulate them. There's a wonderful sense of physicality to everything you interact with in Papers, Please, from pulling the lever to raise the protective shield over your booth's window to stamping various documents, there's a tangible weight to everything you interact with in the game. Especially when you're juggling a bunch of different papers at once on your small desk, physically leafing through everything.
Indeed, everything piled on to the point where I started making my own little cheat sheet in Microsoft Word and printing that out so that I had easy access to some of the more harder to find rules and regulations. On one hand you can make an argument that this is because the game fails to give you the proper space needed to execute your actions, but this is obviously an intentional design decision on the developer's part. I didn't write up these notes because Papers, Please was becoming uncontrollable, but because I wanted to be better and maximize my efficiency at this horribly bleak job. What a truly sinister game.
But it isn't all gameplay that fueled my obsession with Papers, Please, as the story of this fictional-but-not-so-fictional world is quite compelling. While you will never see the faces of your family or interact with them in any meaningful way, the game gives you a variety of opportunities to engage with the people you are processing and to converse with your fellow coworkers. You will get to hear people's stories of their miserable lives elsewhere as you confidently know that their documents are not in proper order, to taking bribes to let people in or out, and there's even more larger stories involving corruption in the government and a mysterious terrorist that wants to work with you to, giving you messages in code and some rather questionable demands.
There are over 20 endings in Papers, Please, and what one you will receive depends on what stories you want to engage with, if any at all. The game has a brilliant save system which separately saves each day's worth of activity so you can roll back and play past days differently, which greatly encourages experimentation with these various plot lines.
Despite being a modest game in terms of its production values, they are perfectly executed. The pandering retro artstyles of other indie titles are frequently frustrating, but it perfectly fits the mood in Papers, Please. The music and sound effects are sparring used, but are fantastic, such as the marching title music which the game's logo charmingly moves with, or the haunting sound the megaphone uses when you order the next immigrant to come up to your booth. The starkest of the production values goes a very long way in solidifying Papers, Please's chilling dystopian and fascist world, which simply absorbed me further into the experience.
Papers, Please is a singularly focused game. It knows exactly what it wants to achieve and does so superbly. The depressing atmosphere and world that developer Lucas Pope crafts is disturbing yet fascinating, which continues to hold true with its unique gameplay which asks you to make some hard decisions in order to "win" the game. Papers, Please is by far one of the most most unique and potent experiences that I've had with a game this year, one that resonated with me thoroughly.
Glory to Arstotzka.
FIVE OUT OF FIVE
(An exceptional game whose flaws are barely noticeable.)