Arstotzka wants YOU for border patrol
Papers, Please is a strange beast. On the surface, it seems most comparable to Cart Life: both games revolve around mundane and repetitive jobs that barely allow their protagonists to make ends meet. But while Cart Life utilizes sympathetic gameplay that reflects the tedium and uncertainty of living through each day in the life, Papers, Please creates a surprisingly fun time management experience for any player able to shuffle through the nightly routine of watching your virtual family slowly starve to death.
After “winning” a new job in the October labor lottery for the glorious nation of Arstotzka, you’re assigned to the position of immigration inspector at the East Grestin border between Arstotzka and their uneasy ally, Kolechia. Your family—wife, son, mother-in-law, and uncle—are moved with you into a nearby “Class-8” apartment, where you’ll still need to pay the daily rent, heat, and food expenses out of your own pocket. With only 30 credits in savings, budgeting from day one becomes a balancing act of deciding whether your family needs food or heat more, and trying to spare some cash in case of illness or another unexpected emergency. Thankfully, your new job assignment does come with a modest salary: five credits for every person you file through the border checkpoint.
That checkpoint is where all of the action takes place in Papers, Please, and an area you’ll become extremely familiar with as days pass. Each morning you’ll arrive at the small booth that acts as the gateway to Arstotzka and the first-person gameplay window. Travelers and immigrants will appear in your window as you order the line forward, placing their passport and any required documents on the counter. It’s your job to review their credentials, comparing separate documents to make sure everything is in order and without discrepancies.
The first few days of your assignment are fairly straightforward: only passports are required to enter the country, so you’ll just need to make sure the traveler looks like their photo, the passport is not expired, and the issuing city is accurate. Once you’ve confirmed everything is on the level or found a glaring error, you’ll use the “approved” or “denied” stamp to verify their status and return their documents. A handy rulebook has been supplied to you by the Ministry of Admission that details critical data like the issuing cities for each country, and keeps track of new guidelines for admission as they are instituted.
These new guidelines appear on a regular basis, explained in bulletins from the Ministry on your desk each morning. Usually, they are in response to the growing threat of terrorists and spies from Kolechia: one day, all Kolechian immigrants must be denied access. On another, you’ll need to use the newly-added scanner to check for weapons or contraband under travelers’ clothes. Passports must be supplemented by foreign entry permits, Arstotzka ID cards, work permits, and other various papers that contain corroborating or separate info about the traveler in question. You’ll need to ensure that stamped seals are authentic, birth dates match, the traveler’s stated reason for visiting matches their documentation, height and weight are correct, and a dozen other tidbits of data are confirmed. If a discrepancy is located, you’ll need to highlight the two mismatched pieces of data—like clicking on a passport photo and the traveler’s portrait if they look different—and question the owner about the problem. This may result in an explanation that requires fingerprinting, such as “I had surgery,” or the traveler may simply feign ignorance.
More often, an immigrant will be unable to justify a discrepancy and beg you to overlook it. A man made it through the checkpoint and mentioned his wife was right behind him; she did not have the entry permit required. She was desperate for approval, claiming she’d be killed if she turned back. With her husband already across the border, it’d be easy to look the other way and give her an “approved” stamp. But what if they were actually terrorists? You’ve already watched as an approved traveler ran past the checkpoint and blew himself, and two guards, into oblivion. What if you lose your job for the oversight? Your son is sick and needs medicine; you haven’t been able to afford food for two days.
These are the big questions that come into play in Papers, Please. With a limited amount of time to process immigrants each day and your livelihood dependent upon keeping the line moving, wasting precious seconds on sob stories and weighing the consequences of such decisions can mean the difference between eating and going hungry. As more rules are implemented and the processing system becomes more complex, focusing on the task at hand is even more critical to keeping your head above water. At the same time, new moral gray areas are introduced that will undoubtedly cause pause: a mysterious organization contacts you and requests their agents be allowed to pass in exchange for a reward; a guard offers part of his bonus check for each immigrant you forcibly detain; a girl begs you to prevent her slaver employer from crossing through. Even the most steadfast inspector will find it difficult to say no to every special request that comes their way, whether it’s beneficial to themselves, a desperate traveler, or both.
At the same time, Papers, Please never quite reaches the level of emotional impact I initially expected. While your family’s wellbeing is a motivating factor in earning money, the fact that they appear only as names on an end-of-day results screen makes their status less meaningful. When my uncle died from illness, more than anything I felt relief that I could stop wasting money on his medicine. Unlike Cart Life, where your family (or cat) is an interactive part of the experience, Papers, Please reduces your relationships to deductions in a ledger. At work, your decisions often feel inconsequential. Immigrants that are denied access may curse your name or claim their lives are ruined, but once they walk away the actual result of the denial is intangible. The daily newspaper doesn’t have an obituary full of names you stamped over; no one bursts into hysterics at the thought of not gaining entry. Most travelers simply turn and walk away, miffed but not doomed. On the other hand, some immigrants whose papers are entirely in order, with no reason for denial, are still terrorists in disguise that cause casualties you had no way of preventing. While this does put you in the tense shoes of a border guard who can never be certain of someone’s status, it detracts from the accomplishment of meticulous document-checking.
Even without an emotional motivation to succeed, Papers, Please provides a strong gameplay incentive for inspectors to return to work each morning. New guidelines and document types are introduced consistently but gradually, with some surprising updates that add almost arcade-like mechanics. Finding a sneaky discrepancy, like a single letter wrong in someone’s name, feels like a monumental success when shuffling through five separate documents while on the clock. Even though border inspector is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of “fun jobs,” Papers, Please successfully condenses the feeling of that role into a challenging and truly enjoyable experience that might not make you cry, but will make you come back for more.