Papers, Please: Approved

Papers, Please is a game created by one-man machine Lucas Pope. It places you as the lucky winner of the labor lottery in the fictional communist country Arstotzka. Your new position as a border inspector is expected to keep you and your four family members fed and warm.

Your rulebook is your best friend. It details all the requirements for the necessary paperwork. Each day, you receive a notice that contains the newspaper headlines and a brief message from the Ministry of Admission. Often, these messages contain updates about new required paperwork such as labor passes. With each notice, your rulebook updates with another respective page.

Each new immigrant must provide the required documents: passport, admissions pass and whatever else the Ministry requires on that day. After checking all the required fields, the player is able to make a decision: approve or deny.

The game is balanced on this decision, repeated for every traveler. Approvals require the player to check every stipulation in the rulebook. If everything is correct, a green stamp allows the traveler to pass the checkpoint and enter the country.

Denials should be easy. Find the problem, give the passport a red stamp. Any discrepancies are explored through an “investigate” system that requires you to link the error to its specific section of the rulebook.

The player gets two free mistakes each day. These can be approving someone who should have been denied or vice-versa. The punishment for any mistake is the same and after the second free mistake of the day, the player then has to pay Arstotzka a fee.

papers-please1
The gameplay screen of Papers, Please. Expect to spend a lot of time looking at that desk.

The Investigate system is where the game’s novelty wears thin. Papers, Please relies on unexplained, specific minutiae. Some irregularities are supposed to be matched with their section of the rulebook. Others, like an incorrect weight on a document, are to be matched with a small scale tucked away on a corner of your desk. There was a particularly annoying section where I had to match a person’s outdated polio vaccines to today’s date on my calendar, rather than the pertinent section of the rulebook that states they must be within 3 years of today’s date.

It expects you to buy into these specific details but leaves gaping holes elsewhere. Whenever you can manage to bring up the Interrogate option, you sometimes find that the immigrants’ answers don’t make sense. The player is given the option to detain someone for not having their alias filed, even if their fingerprints match our records, but they’re also supposed to overlook someone who says “Oh, no, yeah I’m just here for work and not that thing I originally said.”

Here’s a common conversation in Papers, Please.

Inspector: Papers, please.

Inspector: Purpose of visit?

Immigrant: Transit.

Inspector: Duration of stay?

Immigrant: A couple of weeks.

Inspector: Your entry permit says you are here to work.

Immigrant: Oh, yes, I come to work.

Or

Inspector: Papers, please.

Inspector: Purpose of visit?

Immigrant: Transit

Inspector: Duration of stay?

Immigrant: A couple of weeks.

Inspector: Your entry permit says you are here for two days.

Immigrant: Oh, yes, I will only be here for two days.

That counts as “discrepancy cleared” and barring any other errors, you are supposed to approve their passport and let them through. Papers, Please spends the entire game training you to be suspicious, to look for minimal inconsistencies and deny or report those, but it also expects you to accept the idea that the above conversations totally aren’t fishy at all.

The family is another unfulfilled system in Papers, Please. Your care and devotion to them is a clear goal of the game, but why? I have no attachment to them. Going into the game I didn’t even know I had a family. It expects you to care about these names on the screen but that’s all they are: lines of text. You don’t interact with them in any other way except for the purchases screen that comes after each day. Their only purpose is to add stress, but that stress is less effective when I don’t actually care about the characters.

Instead, I care about the people that pass through my checkpoint because they are the ones that I interact with. The magic of Papers, Please is in the small interactions with the weathered faces you meet, those whose fates you influence by which stamp you press onto their passport.

Most of them aren’t memorable. When they share no stories, they are indiscernible from the one you saw right before. But the ones that are nice to you, the ones that are unique and memorable, you can cut those guys some slack. You can break the rules for them.

“Please, my son, he is waiting for me on the other side.”

“My wife is right behind me. Please approve her passport. Do not separate us.”

“I met a woman in the war. Her name is Elisa. She will come by today. Please let her in. She is my whole world.”

Sometimes, I found myself approving incorrect paperwork, especially if I still had my free citations for that day. Deciding whether to break the rules or not relies almost entirely on the player’s values. Many of these characters don’t offer a reward aside from a thank you.

And while I didn’t care about the family, I did care about Jorji. Everyone remembers Jorji because he was a recurring character with a strong personality. His persistence made him endearing, even after he became a drug smuggler. I kept letting him in despite his illegal activities.

Jorji was always nice to me, always mentioning how hard my job was and how it was his mistake that he didn’t have the correct paperwork with an apology and a promise that he’d be back tomorrow.

papersplease-jorji

Papers, Please is most fun whenever you’re able to make those decisions and weigh being a nice person versus following the rules. While those moments are few and far between, that’s also the point. Being this inspector isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s supposed to be work.

These are the decisions that give Papers, Please its unique flavor. You feel like a customs inspector, deciding fates and ruining or making someone’s day.

Papers, Please will be the counterpoint to the notion that video games have to be “fun.” It’s not fun to be this inspector. You work in an understaffed office with a threatening boss doing monotonous work with an increasing pile of rules. Make too many mistakes and you have to pay the government. At home, your family is sick and cold and hungry and if you don’t give your son some medicine he’s gonna die tomorrow and oh yeah there are terrorist attacks sometimes. Why didn’t you shoot that guy? Probably because you didn’t know how to unlock the gun safe or how the shooting worked. Too bad. Boss will be there tomorrow morning to yell at you. Fuck you. Glory to Arstotzka.

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Lectril

I like video games and have strong opinions about "World of Warcraft."

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