This review was originally printed in The Oakland Press.
It’s a rare game that gives you respect for the TSA.
While working as a border crossing inspector in a fictional Eastern Bloc country during the 1980s isn’t the most likely premise for a video game, Lucas Pope’s “Papers, Please” makes it a surprisingly tense experience. That was clear the moment a person I just cleared to enter the country set off a suicide bomb shortly after crossing the border.
As the game opens, you’ve been selected by the government of Arstotzka to work processing people entering the country. A seemingly endless line of hopeful immigrants and citizens stretches in front of your booth, and you have to go over their paperwork, ensuring there are no discrepancies in the names on passports and work visas, checking expiration dates, and comparing people’s photos with their appearance.
You try to correctly process as many people as you can in a given day, which is usually a few minutes. Every day brings a new wrinkle to the proceedings as security restrictions get tighter and immigrants must present more and more documentation for you to pore over. Sometimes, the government will arbitrarily request new papers, like an entry permit instead of an entry ticket.
Sleuthing out a contradiction can be fun on its own, but having to turn away citizens with valid excuses brings some pathos into the mix. You’ll be tempted to bend the rules to let legit-looking people through, but you’ll still be penalized financially for doing so. Once I received a husband and wife — one with valid documents and the other without.
I looked the other way.
But that’s not something you can do often, as the money you make processing people is more than just a score. You have to support your family at the end of each day, paying for food, heat and medicine for sick relatives. It always seems like there’s never enough to go around, so some days you’ll be forced to hold off on buying your son the medicine he needs, or let grandpa go without heat for the night because you had a particularly poor day at work.
There are also story arcs that persist between days. After the suicide bombing, immigrants from the same country of origin are labeled as terrorists, and the government demands full body scans of anyone coming from there. I felt terrible subjecting people to “random” checks, but I needed to ensure I earned the money my family needed to survive.
Another arc involved a woman who slipped me a note saying she was going to be forced into sex trafficking if I allowed through the man in line after her. Though his papers were in perfect order, I still found an excuse to turn him away. And my good deed was rewarded with a dock to my pay.
That’s not to say the game is all gloomy. One persistent old man came to my checkpoint daily, each time presenting hilariously forged documents, including a passport that appeared as if he had drawn himself in colored pencils.
I don’t want to give away too much. Suffice to say that the game has a strong “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” attitude toward the job, and toward bureaucracy in general.
Our protagonist, the unassuming inspector, is dragged into international intrigue and revolutionary politics, and there are 20 different endings depending on who you choose to trust over a one-month period. It’s not easy making it to the end, either. Keeping your family alive and staying out of trouble is like plate spinning. Simply balancing the time you spend reading documents with trying to make enough money to get by is plenty nerve racking.
While on the surface it might seem like a droll exercise, “Papers, Please” is a surprisingly poignant and challenging game for PC and Mac players looking for something different, and it’s a meager $10 to boot. It’s available by download from Steam and through the website papersplea.se.
Lucas Pope provided a “Papers, Please” download code for the purposes of this review.