Papers, Please (2013) – The Well-Red Mage



“Nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer; nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
-Fyodor Dostoyevsky



Laughing.png “The following is a contributor post by the Laughing Mage.”

Papers, Please by indie game developer Lucas Pope has received so much widespread acclaim that I second guessed—triple guessed and quadruple guessed—if I should’ve picked it for my first video game review. There’s a nod for a Papers, Please III in a fourth season Black Mirror episode called “Playtest” and an indie short film based on the game. Who knew that working as an immigration officer in a fictional Eastern Bloc country named Arstotzka would strike a chord with so many people? I’m not sure if any empathy game (a type of role-playing game that asks players to inhabit someone else’s emotional world) has ever received this much attention.

Pope takes the mundane task of checking and double-checking immigration documents, sets the menial task against the backdrop of an East/West Grestin (a fictional parallel to East/West Berlin) and the wall used to separate the two halves of the city, and squeezes in some tense, moral decisions between the government’s oppressive search and seizure. Papers, Please tells a story in a manner only a video game can tell a story. The choices the player makes determine the man the inspector is. Will the inspector create a better world or look after himself and his family?

Papers, Please has been ported to several devices and systems, but I played it on Steam, so my review should reflect that version of the game.


November 23, 1982

After six years of closure, the border between East and West Grestin has been reopened. You’ve won the lottery as the inspector of the now active entry point to Arstotzka from the neighboring Kolechia. The pay isn’t good, but you’ve been given a Class-8 home and it might be enough to care for your wife, son, mother-in-law, and uncle. Glory to Arstotzka!

This short 8-bit introduction is all Papers, Please needs to set the scene and story. The older graphics are fitting as the game is set in the early 1980s. They may even be a little better than the glory days of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial video game—just kidding, the E.T. video game never had a glory day.

Players are then introduced to the immigration checkpoint workstation. The top third of the screen depicts the current state of the checkpoint. Players will see the inspector walking to their workstation in the center of the window, a line of immigrants forms on the left side of the checkpoint, and armed guards on the right (their numbers will grow as incidents occur). The bottom two-thirds of the screen are split between the current arrival (on the bottom left) and the paperwork the player is processing (on the bottom right). This set-up is efficient and sterile as one would think a checkpoint of this nature would be. It also can be a little clunky and archaic, which adds to the authenticity of the era and the struggle for the player to adapt to this reality.

Players can read the current rules of entry to East Grestin by checking their notifications. In fact, the notifications page is visible as soon as the day begins. Players can click and drag the notifications page to its rightful place below the window where the new arrivals enter. Most of a player’s useful info populates there at first. On the first day, only native Arstotzkians may enter the checkpoint; foreigners need not apply. This is a good jumping-off point for the player as it teaches them where things are in the control panel. After several passersby go through or get rejected, a whistle blows, the line of immigrants disappears, and the day ends.

Throughout this process, players won’t be able to understand the vocal lines of the inspector, his peers, or the people he’s interrogating. While it could be viewed as lazy or not wanting to hire voice actors, I think it adds to the drive-thru nature of the checkpoint. I can’t really understand you and you can’t understand me, but neither one of us cares—or at least the inspector doesn’t care.


At the end of each in-game day, the player earns money based on how many people they processed (5 credits each), the bribes they collect, and get docked penalties for protocol violations. Once this money is tallied, the player must decide how to spend their money on rent, food, heat, and other expenditures. This is where a lot of difficult choices come into play. Does the inspector starve his family to move into a better house, improve his workstation, or sneak out of the country? This black screen with toggles for a budget may be a small section of the actual gameplay, but it adds so much to Papers, Please’s character and world-building. I’ve never been this anxious at an “end-of-day screen” in a game. I don’t know how many times I had my fingers crossed.

I won’t go over each of the individual 32 days in the story. The bureaucracy must grow to support the growing bureaucracy. Security incidents—as well as disease outbreaks—cause for stricter security practices. It only takes a few days for a simple glance and yes-no for someone approaching the workstation to turn into the inspector checking the person’s listed weight versus the scale in the bottom right corner of the character’s profile. If the two numbers don’t match, there comes a search and the player must check to see if the character has any contraband like weapons or drugs on their person. It doesn’t take long for the checkpoint at East Grestin to get intense.

Coincidentally, searching people is one of the few instances of nudity in the game which can be toggled on or off in the settings menu. If one turns off nudity, characters will have on underwear. Even if players don’t toggle off nudity, they won’t see much because of Papers, Please’s 8-bit aesthetic, and this may be a good jumping-off point to discuss another reason why—beyond being true to the 1980s—Papers, Please might use 8-bit graphics: abstraction.

Sure, the abstraction granted by Papers, Please’s 8-bit graphics makes the atrocities—like bombings and people getting shot—less gruesome, but abstraction also allows one to see themselves in the image.


If one looks at Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait, they won’t see much of themselves, unless they look a lot like Van Gogh, but if someone looks at a smiley face drawing, most people can see a part of themselves in that smiley face, because they smile sometimes. The immigrants who pass through the inspector’s checkpoint are more relatable, in part, because they aren’t photo-realistic pictures of someone. This allows the player to empathize even more with a mother who wants to pass through the border to be with her daughter, because she could be the player’s mother—in an alternate reality about thirty to forty years ago, sure—but the player can also struggle with letting the mother through without the right paperwork because that would mean that the inspector, the one whose shoes the player is physically wearing, would lose money for his family. Yikes! Don’t make me choose between families. You suck, Papers, Please. Actually, you’re great because you make me make those decisions.

Getting back to the overarching storyline, Papers, Please introduces a mysterious organization known as EZIC early on in the game. This group plans to overthrow the Arstotzka government and that’s all well and good, but again, the inspector must make a choice to aid EZIC and affect change or save their family. There is a way to do both, but it can be difficult. The push-pull of the inspector doing what’s right for someone else or for the greater good versus doing what’s best for their family is at the center of most of the conflict—and there’s a lot of internal and external conflict to be had.

I could see someone investing countless hours into Papers, Please’s gameplay and lore, but it’s a game I can only handle in small amounts of time. The gameplay can be repetitive—you’re checking people’s documents after all—and I don’t always have an appetite for its dark theme, difficult moral choices, and high tension.

Still, Papers, Please earns its place as one of the most venerated indie video games of the 2010s.





visuals Visuals: 8/10

Papers, Please mirrors the era in which its narrative is set: the early 1980s. Its 8-bit sprites add to the overall vibe of the game, but the gameplay suffers at times as a result.

Pixelated portraits can make cross-referencing passport photos, and other supporting documents, to a person a chore—but on the other hand, it amplifies the game’s difficulty and provides a double dose of meta. Government documents often get damaged and become illegible, even for people whose job it is to deal with them, so the graphics are in keeping with the era and the simulation it’s trying to achieve.

The cruder graphics also grant Papers, Please a touch of abstraction. Sometimes players must fill in the gaps when something awful befalls a would-be immigrant. Other times the player is spared a gruesome scene. Either way, the player is actively engaged in this world and anything one creates in their imagination is worse than what a visual medium can show. Horror films have known this for decades.

Still, I must dock Papers, Please a couple of points for its visuals. That’s her face? She looks nothing like that, and I just wasted a few seconds clicking buttons and waiting for results. There are limits to the copious amount of times I erroneously scanned people’s faces.


audio Audio: 7/10

Papers, Please doesn’t use that much music, but the music it employs drives home the point that Arstotzka is an Eastern Bloc country. The main theme, which plays at the beginning of each day, feels like the protagonist inspector is high stepping his way to work each morning.

That’s fantastic. I can, and have, listened to that song on a loop. That’s not a good sign, but at least I didn’t dance the Mamushka, “the dance of brotherly love.” Mamushka!

While the rest of the music is mostly forgettable, character voices and other sound effects come from public sources—one could download midis or wave files from sites like Soundcloud and create one’s own government document thriller—but Papers, Please’s usage of these sound clips is well done. Garbled voices conjure the idea that what immigrants or superiors or peers say to the protagonist doesn’t matter like much adult dialogue in a Peanuts television special. Heck, even what the protagonist says doesn’t matter to him. He’s going through the motions.

The main theme elevates the rest of the soundtrack, but I’m counting off a few points here. Papers, Please’s soundtrack is largely functional.

gameplay.png Gameplay: 8/10

It doesn’t matter how well Papers, Please embodies government paperwork, it’s gameplay centers around government paperwork. “I wish someone would make DMV: The Video Game,” said no one ever. You know, I might just play DMV: The Video Game. Don’t @ me.

The tedium of checking passports and other supporting documents is mind-numbing at times. Fortunately, there’s the threat of death and supporting one’s family to spice up the act of checking IDs.

Story mode begins easily enough—only native Arstotzkians are allowed entry—and each day adds a new wrinkle to what the inspector must check against. One of the areas where I think Papers, Please triumphs with its gameplay is that it incorporates narrative elements into some of these new daily wrinkles and folds the narrative into the gameplay so that the two are almost indistinguishable.

But the inspector doesn’t just check documents. No. Later in the game the player character is tasked with manning a tranquilizer gun—in case a terrorist or two were to attack the entry point—and the secret organization EZIC gives the player a chance to overthrow the Arstotzkian government. They’ll give the inspector specific tasks and the player has the choice to go through with EZIC’s plan or reject it, and the idea—or even the illusion—of choice is a hallmark of Papers, Please gameplay.

The choices the player makes between each day is a large part—if not the largest part—of Papers, Please’s narrative and by extension its gameplay. The inspector may be given choices like adopting his niece, but his family goes without food or heat for one day. Do you help EZIC and risk being found out by the government? Do you do what you’re told and uphold Arstotzkian law? Glory to Arstotzka! But these are overarching choices, Papers, Please also gives the player plenty of choices and moral dilemmas within their job and in the course of a day.

An immigrant could ask to be let into the country so they can reunite with their children, but any violation of protocol results in a citation. Too many citations and the player character could be charged fines and possibly thrown in jail—or even executed. The choice to grant leniency for someone could negatively impact the player or the player’s family and that creates plenty of tension with which choices the player makes.


So far, so good, but I’ll have to take Papers, Please to task for a couple of ahistorical items. I’ll start by saying that they’re nitpicky issues and remind everyone that Artstotzka is a fictional Eastern Bloc country—emphasis on the word fictional—but I have to mention the couple of times Papers, Please breaks its immersion: anti-vaxxers and an abundance of crossdressers.

A Polio outbreak occurs in the neighboring country The United Federation on Day 25. It happens because people don’t believe in the vaccine. To be fair, anti-vaxxers have existed as long as vaccinations, but most anti-vaxxer movements occurred in the late 1800s/early 1900s and the 1990s and beyond, and the one vaccine that has enjoyed the widest acceptance rating in history is the Polio vaccine.

This outbreak serves the gameplay, but not the immersion. The player must check vaccination records from Day 26 and beyond and while I like that it adds a new wrinkle in gameplay, I scratched my head at its inclusion. Was there ever push back on the Polio vaccine? Not really. Did anti-vaxxers exist in the early 1980s? Sure, but not in as large of numbers as they do today. There’s a problem with assigning modern sensibilities to historical time periods and that’s where we get to Artstotzkian crossdressers.

I’ll lead addressing this issue by admitting that I identify as gender-free and I’m likely to wear male and/or female clothing, but the number of people fleeing their countries dressed in women’s clothing even though their passport states that they’re male is astounding and ridiculous. Crossdressers were included in this game solely for the player to pay attention to the gender on the person’s passport.

I would second guess wearing clothing of the gender not printed on my documentation if I wanted entrance into another country in today’s climate. Papers, Please is set in an Eastern Bloc country, in the early 1980s. No one—not even yours fluidly—would expect to enter a country of Arstotzka’s ilk dressed like this. It’s counter-intuitive and the pinnacle of a modern sensibility imposed on a historical time period coupled with making a game out of government paperwork.

One or two times, sure. I’m sure that happened on rare occasion. A half dozen times and I’m wondering how interested these people are in crossing the border. LGBTQ community members are still being murdered in Russia today.

Okay. I’m done with my rant. These immersion breaks don’t represent Papers, Please as a whole. It’s a well-crafted game. Most choices are tense and feel meaningful and for that, Papers, Please rises above the tedium of checking documents for a nice gameplay score.


narrative Narrative: 9/10

Whew. There’s a lot going on with Papers, Please’s gameplay and I may have covered some narrative structure in the previous section because gameplay and narrative are so intrinsically linked in Papers, Please. But narrative is where this game shines like an eagle—or some other mixed, cliched metaphor.

Papers, Please paints its narrative in the game’s blank space. Sure, there’s the tedium of checking government documents—and the majority of the game is centered around that—but the story of the inspector and his family comes in between the inspector’s daily chores. Do you uncheck the expenses for “food” or “heat” to purchase something else, knowing that your family will suffer? Do you confiscate passports, accruing warnings, or even financial penalties, so that you can doctor those passports for your family and escape? Do you keep your head down out of fear of being caught? All of these are valid choices. All of these choices, or illusion of choices, puts the player in the role of the inspector.

Papers, Please doesn’t just go for large moments and big decisions. It sprinkles in some nice character moments like after the first time the inspector tranquilizes a terrorist and his son hands him a drawing with the text “Arstotzka’s Hero.” Papers, Please’s character building and story come out in ways that only a video game could tell a story or build characters and that’s why it’s received several awards.

I don’t want to get too far into Papers, Please’s storylines, wading deep in spoiler waters, I may have said too much already, but Papers, Please not only challenges preconceived notions of right and wrong and what someone may or may not do if put in an untenable situation, it challenges video games to branch out with new forms of storytelling.

Sure, there are some moments where characters feed the player exposition and some of the world-building comes from newspaper headlines or clippings, but they aren’t used in excess. Papers, Please does a good job of showing instead of telling. It does an even better job of immersing the player in its world, so much so that an indie film based on the game exists.

It’s difficult to separate Papers, Please’s narrative form from how it builds its characters, world, and story, but that may be the point. It receives high marks in this category if for innovation alone.


accessibility Accessibility: 5/10

While Papers, Please takes things slow and raises the temperature of its difficulty a little over time, it doesn’t hand feed players. The inspection booth can be difficult to navigate at times and chat rooms and question and answer sites are littered with places where gamers get stuck. Papers, Please could use more of a tutorial, especially in later rounds of the game. The rulebook does point out changes to the ruleset, but it’s too easy to mess up and have to start over a day or two—or 30.

replayability Replayability: 8/10

This is a difficult category to grade. On one hand, Papers, Please has plenty of replay value and even demands players to replay it at least a handful of times. But once one achieves a dozen or so of Papers, Please’s 20 possible endings, I’m not sure if there’s a lot of replay value. Lucas Pope included an endless mode once a player finished the game at least once, but the game loses something with that game mode.

With 20 endings there’s still plenty of replay value. One can finish Papers, Please in under an hour—heck, one could deliberately fail as an inspector and end the game in less than five minutes—and I put in over 20 hours for this review and still found avenues I could navigate the story.


uniqueness Uniqueness: 10/10

I have never seen a game as immersive—most of the time—and nerve-racking as Papers, Please. It wasn’t just Papers, Please’s ethical choices—there were plenty of those that made me nervous—the frenetic pace of checking people and their documentation as they crossed Arstotzka’s border takes a lot out of a person.

If one divorces its setting (good luck with that), players gain an appreciation for the long lines one may encounter at an airport or the DMV. Papers, Please functions as an “empathy game,” or as Papers, Please’s designer Lucas Pope would say, an “other people simulator.”

If you aren’t sure what an empathy game is, there’s a free-to-play flash game called Loneliness. It’s a good example of another empathy game, and it can be played here.

There aren’t too many games that ask players to inhabit another person’s life. Papers, Please is one of those games. There’s a reason why Papers, Please is cited as a video game that suggests that the medium be treated as an art form.


mypersonalgrade My Personal Grade: 9/10

This is another difficult grade to give Papers, Please. Did I enjoy my time in Arstotzka? Somewhat. I don’t think someone is supposed to enjoy the task they’re given in this game. That’s not to say that Papers, Please isn’t enjoyable. There are parts that are a joy, but it’s a game that forces its players to think and look at the world in a different manner and for that it gets a higher grade in my book. One could view Papers, Please as an important game. I’ve certainly learned a thing or two by playing it.

Aggregated Score: 8.0



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