Did you know that the majority of costs associated with producing a video game is related to marketing? Hype generation isn’t cheap after all. That’s why only the biggest game developers were able to comfortably test out new game mechanics and ideas on a large scale. If they end up working, those same mechanics can be recycled into a series of games, recuperating losses and making a profit. In short, experimenting is not for the plebeians.
This eventually resulted in basically the same old shooter being rehashed again and again with slightly better visuals, only sometimes draped as a space opera or a cowboy shooter. While it is fun to blow stuff up and be the savior of the world who single-handedly defeated the Nazis yet again, let’s be honest – how many times have you seen red explosive barrels?
It all changed when the Internet became mainstream. People with interesting ideas and a low budget, the so-called “indie devs,” could now reach the market and contact the customers directly, for example by putting a trailer or Let’s Play on their own Youtube channel.
While it was still a lot of work to produce a game, indie devs could remove a huge variable from the equation and know that they at least have a chance to strike gold. Finally, those tired tropes were being put to rest with the advent of indie developers. One such video game that challenges our notions of fun and has absolutely no explosive barrels is Papers, Please, made by Lucas Pope.
In Papers, Please, you’re a low-level pencil pusher working at a border checkpoint of a fictional country named Arstotzka, which is ruled by a ruthless, totalitarian regime. Your job is to stamp passports with either a green or a red stamp, letting travelers through or denying them entry.
You are not a hero, you’re simply trying to make a living. This feeling of vulnerability and helplessness is punctuated by the report at the end of each day, where you are asked to choose between heating, food or medicine for your family. If you do extremely well, it’s possible to pay all expenses, save up money and get an option of moving to a better apartment. This is actually extremely difficult to achieve and you can pat yourself on the back if you manage to do it.
Remember when I mentioned low budget? The graphics in Papers, Please are washed out and the color pallete ranges from beige to olive. The graphics do manage to show what’s going on, but just barely. If you’re looking for a benchmark video game, this definitely isn’t it. The sound assets are also fairly unimpressive, with voices being replaced by boops and bleeps and generic sounds for everything else.
Arstotzkan Ministry of Admission has kindly provided you with a trusty rulebook and the audio transcript of everything the applicant says so you can crosscheck it with their documents. However, you do not have a lot of discretion in your decision and the entry criteria page is updated daily in official memos from your superiors. That’s basically the core gameplay but once you finally get introduced to the game’s subplot is where the first problems with Papers, Please arise.
You will be approached by several people claiming to be insurgents fighting to bring down the Arstotzka regime. You have no choice other than cooperating with them, because they will just keep pestering you until you join their cause. Reporting them to your superiors will get you a GAME OVER via summary execution.
The gameplay is quite simple and can become very stressful, fast. You are expected to juggle the torrent of documents, tokens, wallpapers, plaques and other trifles on a tiny desk while the clock is ticking and chipping away at your earnings. All the while the top third of the screen sits unused 99% of the time.
Sadly, almost all actions are mouse driven. While it makes sense to simplify the interface for the mobile market, it’s infuriating that you can’t do much with the keyboard. You will most likely be left feeling bored and idle, especially if you have a lot of actions-per-minute.
The game punishes you every time you make a wrong decision, but sometimes you have no idea what you did wrong and the game won’t tell you. For example, if the entrant lies but his documents check out, you will be penalized for letting him through. If you reject him, you will also be penalized. If you ask him about the lie, he will quickly correct himself. If you then reject him, you will again be penalized. This isn’t mentioned anywhere and you have to figure it out on your own.
This kind of trial-and-error gameplay makes for some truly enraging moments, where you will scream: “Bullshit!” at the screen out of sheer frustration, because it will seem the game is intentionally fucking with you. Dealing with entrants isn’t the only time when you’ll be bamboozled. At one point, a checkpoint guard will approach you and suggest that you start detaining people, since he gets a bonus for each person and promises you a cut.
Sounds fairly straightforward, right? Not in Papers, Please, as the said checkpoint guard will happily swindle you and keep almost all proceeds to himself. There is simply no way to win in Papers, Please and feel good about yourself. And that sums it up perfectly.
If you enjoy video games where you can’t win and that make you feel bad about yourself, Papers,Please is the perfect choice for you. I cannot in good conscience recommend this game to anyone but masochists only. It does show a lot of cool ideas, but the low budget nature of indie development leaves them all stunted.
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