Papers Please [App o’ the Mornin’]

I have no idea whether to recommend Papers Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller (Steam/Lucas Pope, PC/Mac: $10) to you or not. It’s intended for a very particular kind of gamer and its elements and retro visual style are guaranteed to drive the majority of players away before the first game-day is over. But if you read to the end of this review and think, “Hm, that sounds kind of interesting,” you may be the intended audience.

How to describe Paper Please? You play as a low-level border official at some backwater boarder crossing in a ghastly imaginary Soviet bloc country in 1982.

Your job is to check the papers of people attempting to enter the country, and either approve them or not.

And that’s it.

You never leave the screen you see in the accompanying illustrations except at the end of the day, when your meager salary is calculated and you determine whether or not you can keep the heat on tonight, feed your family, and buy medicine for your sick son.

So what do you actually do?

You check people’s travel documents. And then stamp them. The only actual action you take is choosing which stamp to use, but much hinges on that choice and it requires long and careful consideration.

To quote Thomas Magnum, “I know what you’re thinking, and you’re right.” You’re doing someone’s boring job. For free. As entertainment.

But it’s more than that. The game introduces complexity gradually. On the first day, you’re just checking some basic facts to make sure passports are valid and issued by your country. This means comparing expiration date to today’s date, the place of issue to the list of valid issuing locations, and small details like that.

Each day, new complexity is added. Foreigners are permitted. Work visas are needed. Local ID is issued. Visitors from certain countries need full body scans (complete with optional minor nudity). New details need to be checked. Do the codes match? Is that mannish woman actually a woman? Is the strange man with his own handmade passport a harmless crank, or a dangerous nut?

Each morning, there are news releases: be on the lookout for certain fugitives, be aware of human trafficking, watch out for terrorists. Once in a while a radical breaks through and kills the border guards, shutting down your crossing for the day and costing you vital wages.

Too many errors in a day, and you get hauled away to the gulag. You’re clinging to survival by your fingernails with only a few bucks a day to keep you and your family alive. There is no room for error.

From such minimalist elements, Papers Please weaves a gripping tale and a tense gaming experience. The choices are puzzle-like and observational, but each one can be a matter of life or death.

It’s a unique kind of game, and it gets under your skin. It is not for everyone, but to see a game weave such an odd, suspenseful spell from so little will be utterly fascinating to connoisseurs of unique games.

Content: There is a full-body scanner that shows some mild nudity, but the nudity may be turned off. People break through the lines and kill guards (and are, in turn, killed), but given the pixelated quality of the retro visuals, it’s not graphic. You may have to make some pretty grim decisions at times, including whether or not to keep the heat on and feed your whole family. Characters may die. Sex trafficking is a plot element, but it’s not handled in an exploitative way. Except for assorted messages, the game really does only have two screens: the one pictured and the end-of-day screen. Some may be offended that a serious subject (immigration, exploitation, repression, and violence in a totalitarian state) is treated in a game, but I thought the material was handled well: alternately horrifying, depressing, irritating, bittersweet, funny, and even touching.

It is not ESRB rated, but would probably earn a T for the dark subject matter.