I can’t imagine that being a passport inspector at border control is always the most thrilling job. Playing a game in which you act as one therefore probably sounds even more mundane. Papers Please does precisely this, and surprisingly, it’s not very mundane at all.
Before I continue with the review I should point out one important detail – I haven’t played the full game, just the free beta. The beta only gives you access to the first eight days of the story mode (of which I have played through twice). In the full game this scripted mode is thirty-one days long, features twenty different endings and an endless mode has also been added. Obviously I cannot speak for what I haven’t played, but I think what I’ve experienced in the beta has given me a good idea of what the full game is like.
You work at the single border crossing in the fictional Soviet-esque country of Arstotzka, towards the end of the year nineteen-eighty-two. As the sole passport inspector it is your job to control who comes in and out of your great nation.
Things start off simple at first: as long as the person is Arstotzkan and holds a valid passport they can come through; anyone else is rejected. However, each day brings new rules and the amount of things you need to check increases, raising the difficultly as it does so. Towards the later stages of my game, my desk was nearly always incredibly cluttered and it became pretty hard to keep track of everything. Workers require permits, Arstotzkan’s require (valid) ID cards, people from different countries need entry passes etc etc. And while you’re checking all those documents are valid you’ll forget to check that their passport photo is correct and you’ll let the sneaky bugger in.
Mistakes are handled fairly gently. After your first error of the day you’ll receive a warning, two more and you receive a fine. This is not good. You have a family to feed, keep warm and buy medicine for and you need every penny you can get. Without the thought of providing for your family at the back of your mind, you could happily check everyone’s papers at a leisurely pace. The fact that it is means you can’t and provides a great balancing act. On the one hand you want to get through as many people as quickly as to can to earn more money for your family, but at the same time you don’t want to go too quickly in case you make a mistake. You will be constantly worried that you’re missing something, and whenever you let someone through you’ll be nervously eyeing the bottom of your screen, terrified that another warning is about to appear. This is where the real pressure comes into the game and it works brilliantly.
However, my favourite part of the game is how you interact with the objects on your desk when examining a person’s papers.
The screen is split into three sections: along the top you can see the queue of people waiting in front of the border crossing hut-thingy where you work, clicking the megaphone on the top of the building will call the next person in line in to see you.
The person will then appear in the bottom left section. Here you have access to a transcript recorder, rule book, clock and the controls for the shutters. This is also where the person hands over their documents.
Pulling their papers across to the right brings you to the final section, and this is where the majority of the gameplay takes place. Here you can closely inspect all the documents (both yours and theirs) and is where the ‘APPROVED/DENIED’ stamp is located. Doing all these things just feels great, I’m not sure why but it does. Oh, and the stamp is flipping awesome. It feels incredibly satisfying to stamp ‘DENIED’ in big red letters onto someone’s passport, particularly if they’re a swine.
If I had one complaint it would be that I didn’t always find it clear how to show that I’d found a problem with someone’s documents. This is probably a result of me not reading the instructions carefully enough, but it would have been nice if the game sometimes gave you a bit of nudge in the right direction when you’re struggling to work out what to do.
Somehow, the creators of Papers Please have managed to make inspecting passports fun. It’s obviously an incredibly unique game, but it’s a really good one too. It’s nicely written, you’ll often begrudgingly stamp some b******’s passport ‘APPROVED’ wishing you could find a reason to turn him away and ruin his day. The intro music is badass too.
Papers Please is currently £6.99 on Steam. That sounds about right to me when you consider the replayability of the Story mode with twenty endings and the addition of an Endless mode. And having experienced all that’s on offer in the Beta (which you can download HERE for free by the way), I’m very tempted to hand over the cash.
GLORY TO ARSTOTZKA!