Papers, please (3909, 2013)

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Papers, please, developed by 3909 (2013).

Score: the damn thing is not fun.

Papers, please is an old-school looking, kind of point-and-click, indie game. You are a borders official in totalitarian republic Arstotzka. The game consists of sitting in your booth and checking if people who want to enter the country have the correct paperwork. You need to check if the passport is not expired, if they look like the photo and so on and so forth. As the game progresses, you have to check a ridiculous amount of data in a too small desk and in a ridiculously short amount of time, because a family of five is depending on your wage and if you don’t process enough people you can’t afford food and heat and you will go to jail if you owe as little as five dollars and it’s game over.

This game could be straight out of one of Franz Kafka’s feverish nightmares on two levels: you are part of a horrendous, totalitarian government and you are both witnessing human trafficking, misery and attacks on human rights and expected to be a ruthless pawn in that misery. You’re there like, I don’t care whether you’re transsexual or have a forged passport, I’m giving you a red stamp because my son is sick, my wife is cold and my freeloading uncle is hungry and I need to process fifteen of you before a fucking terrorist cuts the day short for the third time this week. You send people to their deaths, confiscate passports and allow criminals in because if you don’t, you end up in jail for owing five dollars and it’s game over.

On a second level, this game is a Kafkian nightmare because it is selling the experience of… sitting at a desk and stamping paperwork like that’s fun, and that terrorizes me. The gameplay is not fun, no matter how I look at it. It feels like clerical work because it is actually clerical work. Gamification is supposed to enhance everyday life, but doing the opposite and selling everyday life in the package of a game doesn’t make the experience fun, no matter how many positive reviews you get. I tried to finish it before writing this review but I just couldn’t, it was boring and frustrating. The last levels are preposterous in terms of just how much data you need to process in just a few seconds. Difficulty is not an issue; I play games in maximum difficulty regularly.  The issue was that this requires a kind of skill that I don’t enjoy honing. It doesn’t require strategy, it doesn’t require deducing, it doesn’t require logic. It just requires: are these two names the same? Is this date later than today? What kind of paperwork does this person require today and did they give it to me? Papers, please has been praised for being unique, but before doing something nobody has done before, it’s worth considering whether the reason is that it’s a bad idea.

That being said, its storytelling abilities are amazing. Given that the interface is very limited, storytelling is done mainly through dialogue. It comes in the form of news and the orders you’re given (there’s an epidemic, there’s a killer on the run, some country has blocked our exports…) and in the form of dialogue with other characters. Some people try to bribe you, tell you tragic stories, invite you into conspiracies against the government, lie to you and then there’s Jorji Costava who plays in his own league. I didn’t play much into these because I was too busy trying to save my family from starvation to remember which dipshit I’m supposed to let in without a passport.

Technical aspects are very limited in that it looks like an 8 or 16-bit game but it’s worth pointing out that they managed to make so many different sprites that are clearly different from one another and at the same time look like their more pixelated versions in the passport photos. Also, the fingerprint graphic system works well in that they’re not exactly the same as the filed version but through the small variations you can tell which are the same and which are different.

All in all, personally wouldn’t recommend. But maybe that’s just me.

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