I feel like I've been watching videos and hearing about Papers, Please for years, although I'm fairly confident it was announced less than a year ago. Although it has been in beta for a while, this will be my first time hands-on with the game (although I've watched the good folks over at GiantBomb.com play through the demo.)
My expectation for Papers, Please is for it to be an art game with a message and an entertaining mechanic. I'm a big fan of art games of all kinds, and it seems like Papers, Please is going to straddle the line between being fun to play and getting a point across. This is the same line that a game like Cart Life, which I will look at one day soon, straddles.
You play a resident of fictional country Arstotzka who has just been selected in the national labor lottery to work at the Grestin border checkpoint, allowing nationals and foreigners alike into the country, granted their papers are in order. Congratulations.
In-game, you begin only letting Arstotzkans into the country. Ten days in, however, you are juggling passports from different nearby countries, work visas, mandatory strip searches for Kolechians, special papers for foreign delegates, entry permits, falsified passports, and more.
Using the mouse, you must drag each of the documents from the counter in front of you to the document examination area, and check each piece of information for signs of falsification. If there is a discrepancy, you may interrogate the traveler in front of you, and detain them (assigning to them an uncertain but likely unfortunate fate). If after all of this scrutiny, you decide that they are worthy of entering Arstotzka, you stamp their passport, let them in, and get paid.
This simple activity of checking a traveler's passport rapidly increases in intensity, all while a plot of governmental subterfuge and spying unfold around it. Decisions are forced upon the player - will you accept this bribe to let someone in because your son needs medicine? Do you choose to feed your family or heat their house? Can you process enough passports in each of the six-minute days to afford both?
Before talking about the physical action of checking passports though, I should mention my favorite aspect of Papers, Please. The style.
From the moment the title marches towards the top of the screen in step with the imposingly 'patriotic' theme, Papers, Please's style delights in the most grotesque of ways. Everything about the look of Papers, Please is muddy and dull, its characters misshapen and sallow. The visuals are perfectly evocative of the drab, depressing, disturbing life you are forced to live.
Having grown up with pixel-art as a necessity of video game technology, and having already enjoyed the proliferation of "retro" pixel art games over the past decade, it takes something very special for that style of game to impress me. This isn't to say that retro art is something I hold against games now - I have loved Scott Pilgrim on consoles, Thomas Was Alone, and VVVVVV - but there is no longer any level of "that looks like old games!" excitement upon seeing a retro-inspired video game.
However, like 2012's Hotline Miami, Papers, Please would not be the same, or nearly as distinctive, a game without its chosen style. Nothing about the pixel art style is meant to fool you into thinking you're playing a 16-bit-era video game; the style instead distorts your vision, mirroring the distortion of morality that your job as a border inspector forces upon you. Is it good or bad that you can't really make out the faces of the people whose lives you may be destroying? Does their inhuman appearance make it easier to forget what you're doing to them, or does it make you more afraid of who they might really be?
As wonderfully oppressive as the style is, the gameplay is even more so. The game is controlled almost entirely with a mouse - you must drag the objects that are given to you around, flip pages in your rule book, and highlight areas of discrepancy, all while trying to process as many people as accurately as possible so that you can afford to feed your family. (Each correctly processed traveler allowed in the country is five credits. After an early rent increase, you'll need at least fifty a day.)
The harshest criticism I can level against Papers, Please is that the actual physical actions the game requires and the attention to detail that must be paid to every single traveler is absolutely exhausting. I'm at a successful Day 12, and three days in a row of careful scrutiny is enough for me to turn the game off. It isn't boredom, exactly - I desperately want to know what happens next in the subtle but deeply fascinating story. (I won't spoil anything, but you seem to become part of something greater.) The problem is that Ireally enjoy the act of playing the game. So rather than slog through it day after day, tiring of the mechanics while trying to get to the next bit of story, I keep forcing myself to stop playing until I feel like I want to check passports again. So far, I have come back consistently, and I plan on going to play right after I post this.
Unfortunately, the number of requirements becomes so great that returning to the game is very difficult. Papers, Please is essentially a puzzle game, but with rules so specific and esoteric that leaving the game for any significant period of time seems to rewind the learning curve quickly.
Despite this small problem with the game's surprisingly challenging design, Papers, Please has gripped me, and so far the outstanding visuals, style, and storytelling are more than enough to make me come back and see what lays in store for our border inspector.
Papers, Please in the coming weeks. Continuing randomly among my tremendous list of Steam games that I've never played, this Monday I'm going to fire up a fantasy RPG by developer Piranha Bites. I'm looking forward to...