“Papers, Please” is a strange game in the absolute best sense of the word. It’s Soviet Union meets Berlin Wall, distinctly Slavic and decidedly communist. It’s tense and addictive. In the words of its creator, Lucas Pope, it’s a “dystopian document thriller.”
“Papers, Please,” named for your character’s “catchphrase” of sorts, casts you as an immigration inspector in the fake communist state of Arstotzka. It’s 1982, and your glorious mother country has just ended a six-year war with the neighboring state of Kolechia, resulting in the acquisition of the eastern half of the border town, Grestin. Your job is simple: Decide who can enter Arstotzka, who should be denied and who should be searched, fingerprinted or arrested based on your low-tech inspection systems and eye for the fraudulent. You must work quickly, because you’re paid per person inspected per day — and you have a family to feed.
It seems somewhat mundane. Look at passports and entry visas, check for discrepancies, stamp the papers. Make a subsistence wage. With each game day, the goal is the same. But “Papers, Please” works despite its boring concept, and that is what sets it apart from hundreds of other indie games awaiting approval on Steam Greenlight.
Steam is an online gaming platform through which players can purchase games and connect with friends. Steam’s Greenlight service works much like Kickstarter in that users pledge support for software they want, and it’s a way for gamers to choose which games should be sold on Steam. Most games on Greenlight are either in beta — that is, they work, but they are far from the final version — or simply trailers and concepts.
“Papers, Please,” is available as a beta, and it’s available for download for free on Lucas Pope’s website so players can get a chance to try it before supporting it on Greenlight. The beta is a short teaser of a very promising game; everything from the drab, pixelated art style (a homage to ’80s graphics, which fits the game’s setting quite well) to the immigrants’ varying personalities works to transform a boring job into an entertaining and highly addictive experience.
Although the game starts out slowly — on the first day, only Arstotzkan citizens are granted entry, which makes your job quite easy — it quickly increases in difficulty, and it does so cleverly. New rules to guide the inspection process are introduced as responses to certain events, which are given in daily bulletins. In one instance, a Kolechian terrorist attack results in a mandate to search all Kolechians for weapons or contraband; in another, news of an escaped killer (and his name) keeps you on the lookout for him in line. The details are subtle, but they engage the player and make the game hard to put down.
“Papers, Please” has garnered an overwhelmingly positive response on Greenlight, and it seems as if it will be available for purchase once the full game is completed. It’s a perfect example of the potential of the indie games market: It’s a creative, completely new idea for a game made possible by the low monetary risk associated with a low-budget production. It doesn’t have to try obnoxiously hard to appeal to the core 18-to-25 male demographic (think big guns and pretty women). It represents freedom in creation and quality without outrageous expense.
Best of all, “Papers, Please” does not apologize for being weird. It’s unusual and quirky, and it knows it. It makes the boring more fun and the ordinary much more strange, and that’s what makes the game worth playing.