Hello, everyone, I’m Uncle Dave! You might know me from my review work at Just Games Retro, and if not, that’s quite alright, too, because I’m here today to welcome you to what I hope will be your new favorite recurring article here at The Casual Geekery, Uncle Dave’s Big Steaming Pile, where we’ll take a look at games available through the Steam store!
This will not be, however, an examination of big-name AAA titles; you don’t need me to tell you that Uncharted or The Witcher might actually be, y’know, good. Instead, this column intends to take a look at the more esoteric games floating around Steam, indie games, simulators, bizarre concepts and such. Anywho, enough intro, you’re here for the games, and let’s throw the first game onto The Pile: Papers, Please, released in 2013!
Papers, Please takes us to the city of Grestin, split in ownership between the nations of Kolechia and Arstotzka, similar to Cold War Berlin. You assume the role of a newly minted border inspector on the Arstotzkan side of the fence, trusted with the task of making sure only people with the proper documentation are allowed into the country. There are two modes here, Story, and Endless, which is unlocked after achieving a certain ending in Story Mode.
The concept is simple enough – each day, you have a list of criteria that each potential visitor must meet to pass your station, starting out very simply with only allowing those with Arstotzkan passports to enter. As you progress, more layers of complexity are added on: only allowing certain nationalities entry, requiring ID cards, making sure people coming over for work have their work permits in order, slowly but surely increasing in difficulty until you reach the point you’re having to dig through three or more layers of documents per person. Before each work day, you’ll see the day’s newspaper, the headlines of which will clue you in as to what you can expect later; if the paper mentions an escaped criminal on the loose, you’re probably gonna need to keep an eye out if that person tries to enter the country.
It’s also not as simple as seeing whether or not applicants have their papers or not. There are a great multitude of reasons to deny entry, like expired documents, incorrect information on them, forged stamps, ID pictures that don’t match up with the applicant, contraband that you have to search for (using an x-ray machine, you don’t have to pop on some rubber gloves or anything), and later on, cross-checking potential entrants against a list of wanted criminals for the day. That’s a LOT to have to look for, but luckily, you are assisted by a handbook you can consult to make sure that diplomatic seal is facing the right way, or this issuing city is indeed in the corresponding country, and in that sense, the handbook is very much your best – and only – friend, and after you sit down and really get into the swing of things, your eye essentially trains itself on what to look for, and you truly start to feel like the eagle-eyed inspector the Arstotzkan government trusts you to be. It even got to the point, at least in my case, where the job of inspection became such a rote exercise that I literally would lay out all my pertinent tools on my workspace the exact same way every time before starting the day like a regular desk jockey would. That, my friends, is a sense of immersion.
Now, for every entrant you correctly accept or reject, you earn five dollars. For the first two mistakes, you’re given a warning, and for any mistakes you make after that, you start having pay docked from your check. Why does this matter? Because at the end of the day, you have to pay the bills, in the form of heating and food. If you can’t pay the bills, your family members will get sick and eventually die, and if they die, the game ends. If you’re doing well, though, not only will you be making ends meet, you’ll also have some disposable income, which you can spend on things like hotkeys that bring up your stamp pad quickly or allow you to highlight discrepancies in documents without having to go click on the corresponding icons, which can save precious seconds and can potentially turn into more money. You’ll also have the options along the way to make luxury purchases like a crayon set for your son’s birthday or a better apartment for your family.
As cut and dry as your job appears on the surface, it does also feature some intrigue. For one, there is a nascent resistance movement bubbling just under the surface, and they will attempt to recruit you into their ranks, although it’s far from mandatory; you’re still very much free to turn them away and continue being the loyal worker bee. Also, anyone whose documents are out of order can be simply turned away, or they can be detained and taken off to a…less than pleasant fate. In fact, one of the border guards is more than willing to cut a deal with you to kickback a little extra cash depending on how many people you turn in, which is pretty tempting, obviously. And yeah, if an entrant is trying to smuggle weapons or drugs across the border, it’s no problem, but do you really think that someone deserves to be hauled off to the gulag because they forgot to get their passport renewed?
At another point, a husband and wife attempt to flee persecution in their homeland and seek asylum in Arstotzka, and the husband admits to you that his wife’s documents are not valid, and it’s up to you to literally decide her fate. Do you do the right thing, or do you Do the Right Thing As Prescribed By the State? What about the underground movement? Do you assist them, not knowing what their motives really are? Do you turn them in, wondering if they could know you well enough to implicate you in their activities? Or do you do nothing, hoping to kill it with indifference? And what do you make of ol’ Jorji, the hair-brained smuggler who serves as the closest thing the game offers to comic relief? Is he really that carefree about his illicit business, or maybe, just maybe, is he a plant sent by your bosses to make sure you’re following the proper protocol? It’s very interesting to have to think about these things, especially when you have to weigh your well-being against the plight of other characters. Yeah, you probably need to get through, but I’ve already picked up a couple of citations and my family does need to eat tonight… You also need to be very mindful about towing the party line, because your bosses and government inspectors have no qualms about showing up unannounced and telling you what they think of you, good and bad.
Papers, Please features a very unique aesthetic style – it’s very blocky and brutalist in design, and VERY devoid of color. In a sense, it works well for the setting, the Eastern Bloc not exactly being known for its brightness, and the never-ending parade of drab colors, bland, emotionless visitors, and wide selection of gray shades seem determined to portray a sense of being a mere cog in a great machine and the stark, almost minimalist reality of life in a Communist country in the early-’80s. There is virtually no music to be found here, the only song to speak of here is the main theme, an almost lifeless marching tune that plays on the menu screens and in between days. The rest of the sounds are quite good for their purpose, the mechanical sounds of your stamp bar sliding in and out, the booming, ominous echo of your voice over the loudspeaker calling the next entrant to the booth, and the muffled gibberish that passes for Arstotzkan and the other various languages people speak.
There’s a decent amount of replay value here, as well. There are roughly twenty different endings to Story Mode, although realistically, only about three are what you would consider good. You can pick up your story from an earlier point if you want another crack at things, but only one of the endings will actually unlock Endless Mode. And speaking of Endless Mode, there are three different sub-modes to it: Timed, where you try to process as many entrants as possible in ten minutes, Perfection, where the game ends after your first mistake, and the amount of points you get dwindle as the game goes along (to discourage taking your sweet time checking documents). and Endurance, where you play until you make enough mistakes to reach negative points. Each of these modes also have four difficulty settings, basically asking how many layers of paperwork you want to have to sift through, from simple checks like ID cards and passports to the more elaborate tests like asylum checks and vaccination records. Achievement hunters also have something to shoot for as well, as there are medals to scoop up for letting certain people through or reaching certain goals.
I felt that Papers, Please would be a good first game for the Big Steaming Pile because of the concept; a game where you fill the role of a nameless, faceless, low-level government functionary is certainly a unique idea, and the execution is absolutely tremendous here. The gameplay is well thought out and solid, the art style is definitely a refreshing change from high-end, lovingly rendered graphics, and you may even find yourself having some serious thoughts along the way. It definitely earned all of the myriad awards it has received, and I HIGHLY recommend giving it a playthrough if you haven’t seen it before, or if you’ve seen it and were still sitting on the Glorious Fence to Keep Unwanted Foreign Subversives Out.
Current Price – $9.99
Is It Worth It? Absolutely. Go buy this game.