Papers, Please - A touching dictatorial satire

The not so dull life of an immigration officer

Deny or allow. Living as a border inspector in the glorious republic of Arstotzka, your day is always down to a yes or a no. A green stamp gets you to transit, work or immigrate to this dictatorial state. A red stamp, however, sends you back to the line tomorrow — if I don't bother to issue a detention now.

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Papers, Please by the indie developer Lucas Pope is a puzzle meets hidden object game where you cross-reference the documentation and scrutinise every individual who enters your border booth. Not the most exciting activity, but that's precisely the point. Test your skills at a repetitive task under a time constraint and huge emotional charge.

Set in a fictional soviet republic in 1982, you are lucky to have a job and be allocated to the newly open border as an immigration inspector. The Ministry of Admission is serious business. The country is struggling to cope with neighbouring terrorist attacks, diplomatic pressures and inside rebels unhappy with the current regime. Arstotzka must defend itself from the foreign influence with an iron fist, executed, ultimately by stamping green visas only on the passports of the right people.

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In this context, every day begins with the same routine: open the immigration booth at 6 AM and interview as many people as you can. The Ministry issues new rules almost everyday, which work as your guidelines to approve and reject. As the political tension grows, foreign immigrants are required to provide more and more documents, which in turn, adds to your workload in the typical bureaucratic fashion of a policing state.

Work would be easy if there wasn't anything fishy about the people you deal with. You simply cannot let in those with forged documentation. You see, fake papers will contain some error for you to spot: be it a wrong issuing city, a spelling mistake on someone's surname or just a suspicious photograph. Not sure about the gender? Do a strip search. That surname doesn't quite match? Compare the fingerprints with our records.

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What happens if you don't get it right? The Ministry of Admission will send a telex citation to let you know. The sound of the dot matrix printer when you're interrogating the next person… Terrifying. The first two mistakes are treated as warnings; the next ones will be fines. You don't want to know what the fines are like.

As scrupulous as you want to get, the clock is ticking and the line never seems to get shorter. By the end of the working day, you are only paid for the amount of people that got in — a poor salary to maintain your family in a state-owned C8 cold apartment. You need to allow as many people as possible, which increases the chances of missing some small detail you were expected to spot.

Family ties and state punishment

As soon as your son gets sick and everyone in the house is hungry and cold, you start considering other options to increase your income. You start listening to people. There's this local guy who owns an engineering firm who will give me $5 for every qualified worker I refer. Perhaps I don't need to be so picky with engineers, even if the passport is a little dodgy.

The game splits the screen in three parts: a top view of the border, the booth window and your desk. The actual space for working is itself a constrain, making it very tricky to compare more than three documents side-by-side. As the game progresses, you are able to upgrade to keyboard shortcuts to make your life easier — memorising the rule book will work too.

A fellow patroller who works at the border is willing to share his bonus with me, but for him to meet his targets I need to detain some people. So what grants a detention? Does a person with an expired card deserve the same punishment as one with a fake passport? I can barely pay my rent and that poor soul would never make past the border it anyway.

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The monotony of the day is spiced up with these special events that test your moral and loyalty to the regime. The Ministry has told you what to do; the question is what are you going to do? You can get away with a couple of fines but that means for the rest of the day you cannot afford any silly mistake. What is the price of a family reunion, a woman forced to work in a brothel or taking a bribe?

Papers, Please throws a mind numbing gameplay at you. Remember and process a pointless set of rules; operate the booth with controls that aren't very good; read the tiny text in the documents barely hearing what the person talking to you is saying. I wouldn't say this is fun at all. The triumph though, is mixing the monotony and fear with moral choices, the story and the people behind it. Depending on how you want to play you'll feel disgust, power, sympathy and hate in ways you didn't see coming. There are 20 different endings to the game and the opportunity to return to a critical decision and change the path to an alternate ending.

Try smuggling it to an iPad

Adding to the dictatorial environment are the dark and cold colour palette used, the military march soundtrack, cryptic scary language and sad faces with moustaches. Papers, Please uses very fitting pixel art from the eighties that resembles a lot to the portraits you've seen on Helsing's Fire on iOS – note how Lucas Pope also worked on this title. Which gets me to the most disappointing point if you've read so far thinking this title was available on the App Store: Papers, Please can only be played on PC. I think the touchscreen controls, tapping and swiping documents would make the game even more immersive. It really needs to be on an iPad but it's already really really good. Glory to Arstotzka!