By James L. Brooks.
4/5 Stars – near perfect.
Paperwork is something most people have come to loathe: whether it’s the mountain of forms dumped on a desk an hour before quitting time on Friday, or having to re-submit half of the things on Monday because the wrong contact e-mail was listed. So a game about sorting paperwork should be as appetising as a bowl of week-old porridge, right?
Not so with “Papers, Please”, a one-man project by Lucas Pope.
As the game is a solo project, the graphics and sound design are very basic. The only music is on menu screens, the graphics could be recreated in MS Paint, and most of the sound effects sound like a foghorn with laryngitis. However, the minimalistic aesthetic works by allowing for the player’s attention to be focused on the gameplay, rather than be distracted by set dressing.
The gameplay itself centres on a humble immigration inspector in the fictional country of Arstozka, processing the passports and permits of people passing through. The player is paid piecework for every correct application processed in a day, out of which essentials must be paid for to keep their family going. As additional levels of bureaucracy are piled on like sodden sandbags, the challenge becomes striking a balance between doing the job properly and doing it fast.
The gameplay also serves to craft an absorbing narrative. On the surface, the Inspector is merely a petty official, hounded by his superiors over the slightest slip-up and worrying whether his family will have to go hungry to make rent this week. But to those passing through his checkpoint, he is the deciding factor in their story. Some may be deeply personal, others may affect entire nations; and whilst it is possible for the player to look the other way on occasion, doing so would be at the expense of their own family.
This constant choice between charity towards your fellow man and duty towards your family is what makes the game so engaging: neither choices are presented as explicitly good or bad; they just depend on the player’s perspective.
All in all, “Papers, Please” is a surprisingly engaging game that actually manages to make bureaucracy interesting through carefully blended gameplay and story elements. Frankly, any game that pulls that off deserves an award. Glory to Arstozka.