Papers, Please Review: Mundane tyranny

Papers, Please forces you to commit small acts of evil.

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac
Publisher N/A
Developer Lucas Pope
Release Date Aug 8, 2013

"Papers, please."

I've asked so many times I hear it in my sleep. Another haggard, hopeful face hangs in front of my window, my tenth of the day. She slides her passport, her access permit, her polio vaccination through the window and then tedium begins.

I've done what comes next so many times, it's practically instinctual at this point. I check her height, her weight, her gender, cross-referencing each field against all the documents. Finally I uncover what I'm looking for: A small discrepancy in the spelling of her name. She assures me it's a typo, begs me to let her through the border checkpoint. She's wasting her breath.

I consider sending her away, but the documents could be falsified. That's a crime, and I've got a partner who gives me a kickback for every would-be immigrant that I detain. I could send her away, but I've got a family to feed.

As she fights the guards I've called over, and the butt of one of their guns knocks her unconscious, I wonder if the five credits I earned will be enough to buy my niece the medicine she needs.

This is evil. And Papers, Please has made it the mundane tip of a very dull spear.


Every day is like this:

After walking to work, I check the bulletin for whatever new rules the leaders of Arstotzka have cooked up. I'm a glorified clerk at the border to this USSR proxy, and it's my job to keep out anybody the bosses don't want in. Somedays, it's any foreigner — some days, it's a wanted criminal. My only view of the world outside my booth is a never-dwindling line of 8-bit entrants waiting for their chance at my window, and a wall where I hang a painting from my son that I have to hide when supervisors are around.


I'm always on the lookout for forgeries or missing documentation. It's simple enough at first. I check the issuing city of the passport, consulting my rulebook to make sure it's an authorized location. I check the entrant's weight, their height, and if everything is in order. If it is, I dip my stamp in green ink and send them on their way. If anything's amiss, I click the inspect button to compare the discrepancy. They get a chance to explain it away, but they usually can't. Red stamp. Better luck tomorrow.

"Better luck tomorrow"

For every person I handle properly, I get 5 credits. If I miss too many, I start getting penalties. That's very bad, because I have a family to feed, house and clothe. So every sob story, every "You just let my husband through" has to be weighed against the son I have starving at home because I made too many mistakes yesterday.

Mistakes become easier to make as things get more complicated. More documents are required, rules change and … outside parties start to ask specific things of you too. This helps to spice up the mundanity, but it's also incredibly stressful.

This is, I think, the hitch in my recommendation of Papers, Please, and it's not one everyone will be able to surmount. The bulk of the game, the main mechanic, if you will, is reviewing documents, consulting a rulebook, rearranging papers for a better view of all the information. After the hundredth time or so, double and triple checking, it can get very, very boring. But that boredom, that tedium, is the key to the game.

Throughout the long days at the checkpoint you will reduce the living, breathing humans in front of your window to a series of documents. It's inevitable. Once you've made this essential leap, you'll be staggered at the injustice you're willing to visit on your fellow man.

Wrap Up:

Papers, Please is a meaningful exercise in misery

You shouldn't mistake Papers, Please for anything other than a dirge. You will be forced to abuse your power to protect those you love. You'll reduce people to numbers and, most importantly, you'll never again ask yourself "How could those people just go along with that?" Because you'll know the answer.

Papers, Please was reviewed using code provided by the developer. You can read more about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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