I snagged Papers, Please in a recent Steam sale. I’d known about this game for ages, and while a tenner isn’t exactly a steep price for a critically acclaimed game, the whole craze around the thing just kind of turned me off. Now, however, having played this game, I will immediately jump on the barricades and start co-applauding this brilliant gem along with the impressed mob.
At its core, Paper’s Please is a puzzle game. You work at an eerily Eastern-European-looking border and decide whether you let people into your glorious nation. This is accomplished by cross-examining their documents. With every passing day, new rules are added to the mix, having you be on your toes at all times.
The concept itself isn’t all that new or interesting – courtroom drama Ace Attorney pretty much did the same thing. What makes Papers, Please so brilliant is everything surrounding it. For starters, it looks gorgeous, and the interface is just the right mix of perfect and clunky, creating an eerily realistic bureaucracy feeling. It also captures a very interesting eighties-style end-times-feeling. The times are obviously bleak, and no matter what you do, things seem to be going doing the drain fast – in that way, it reminded me of the brilliant atmosphere set by Watchmen or other comics describing the cold war.
But all those things are actually just the dressing to what really sets Papers, Please apart: choice.
Now choice in videogames has been one of the most predominant topics of the last game generation. BioShock gave us the choice to kill or save little girls – and I remember being thoroughly shocked when the prompt came up. Heavy Rain pretty much reinvented the create your own adventure genre, allowing you to play as both cop and killer and deal with murders. GTA 5 lets you decide which of the main characters live or die at the end. Hell, almost every game has a good and a bad ending nowadays. And, to be quite frank, it sucks. I didn’t want two endings in BioShock or Grand Theft Auto - stories don’t have multiple endings. As a writer, I always have the most difficulties writing endings, because endings pretty much sum up the point you’ve been trying to make throughout the story. Create multiple endings and this point gets muddled.
(Heavy Rain is an exception to this rule, as the CYOA-genre pretty much demands multiple endings. That said, that might be the only story issues this game did not have. Another shout-out for getting multiple endings right goes to the brillant Spec Ops: The Line for showing it’s pointe, war is horrible, in every possible outcome.)
Papers, Please is the game of consequences done right. It starts with an easy enough way of pressuring you: Your family is starving and if you don’t earn money, they will die. So you take a bribe by detaining more people than you should. But then the guy who bribed you doesn’t pay you. See what happens? Every decision you make impacts the next, creating a waterfall of increasingly haunting decisions usually resulting in the death of your family. The entire game unfolds itself like a game of dominoes. It’s something a lot of games forget to do.
I remember there being a quote in Max Payne 2: “A haunted house is a linear series of scares”. In a way, videogames work the same way. What we tend to forget is how, with haunted houses, one scare builds upon the next, whittling down at you until you just can’t take it anymore. Good movies work the same way – the best comedies are the ones where you laugh so hard you hope they stop being funny lest you wet your pants. Then why are our games so fractured?
Get Papers, Please. It’s dirt cheap and really awesome.