Review: Papers, Please

Less video game and more work-related nervous breakdown, this is a strange and engrossing mash of grindsome simulation and dynamic narrative.

Job Description

If someone had come up to you and asked if you fancied playing a simulation game where you're a border control guard in a fictional Soviet-esque autocracy in the early 1980s, processing the endless passports and work permits of the downtrodden masses, you'd be forgiven for going "WTF?" Yet game designer Lucas Pope has done just this and Papers, Please is a game that you should overlook at your own risk, even managing to make it onto our five top indie games of 2013.

Overview of duties

The entire game is pretty simple, from its retrograde graphics and 8-bit Eastern Block stomping soundtrack to the gameplay concept itself: you check over people's documents in accordance to the rules over, and over, and over again until the work day has ended. The first game day is incredibly innocuous, and in fact, a little boring. But it doesn't take long for the narrative to really kick in and make this the "dystopian document thriller" it's billed as. 

Not only do you have to be good at your job, you also have to make sure your family are heated, fed, and healthy as they can be on your menial wages. There's also a smorgasbord of subplots from terrorist attacks, sectarian underground uprisings, to government corruption that thicken as time goose-steps on. As each plot-point plays out, the more complex your job is and the more perilous your family's condition is.

Employee must be able to work under stressful conditions

The genius of this game is how manic it becomes, as the crux is that you get paid per applicant processed: not a set wage. Therefore you need to get through as many people as possible per day. But as the criteria for getting into Arstotzka becomes more complex, the difficulty in making the moolah you so desperately need ramps up quickly. Soon, you're taking bribes left, right, and centre, and sending hapless innocents to gruesome fates, all for the sake of cash and self-preservation.

Employee must have a keen attention to detail

Pope is a game designer who knows that God is really in the detail, and this really marks him out in a world where a swathe of 8-bit style indie games have become a banal nuisance and not a nostalgic tick.

Everything about the game is deliberate. For example, the convoluted way you drag and click your way around the user interface just seems like unintuitive and clunky design at first. But you quickly realise that it's meant to be this troublesome, and you'll soon be begging to afford those booth upgrades that will help you process people with a fraction more speed.

The game's scope for replay is excellent. Very much like the choose-your-own-adventure novels that some may remember from their youths, there are many main plot and sub-plot choices that can ultimately lead you to an abrupt dead-end, or have a dramatic effect on the game's direction and outcome. It's a novelty that will keep you coming back to contrive a different possible ending from a grand total of 20.

Summary of benefits

The only things that don't make this game perfect is that it's difficulty is frustrating. Your job becomes so much to take in you'll start getting it wrong more often than not, which can cause a Game Over quicker than you can say, "Glory to Arstotzka!" Not to mention it's political message is pitched a little at high-school level ("boo" to bureaucracy and governmental corruption).

To say it's "fun" would be a lie. In fact, it's less of a video game and more of a work-related nervous breakdown. You'll find yourself having an anxiety attack after every applicant you deal with just in case you have managed to miss a microscopic discrepancy that will mean your pay will get docked, or worse, you enrage a dangerous resistance group.

But somehow, despite the stress and the grind of the gameplay itself, you're somehow hooked on plouging through the distress as this underdog literally on the fringes of an unstable autocracy. The narrative may well be intriguing, but this experience is unlike anything you're likely to have played before and really sticks.

A twisted mash of narrative and simulation, this is perfect for those with a glutton for punishment. But for everyone else, it's a strange and oddly engrossing experience.

Papers, Please is available on Steam and various other clients. For more information about the game, visit

Our Rating
Less video game and more work-related nervous breakdown, this is a strange and engrossing mash of grindsome simulation and dynamic narrative.

Featured Columnist

Bearded British game-bear. Likes his JRPGs accompanied with a G&T. Lives in London, UK. Also writes a lot about theatre and film. *jazz hands*

Published Dec. 5th 2013
  • Kazz in space
    Featured Contributor
    I saw this on Steam a couple of days ago and honestly I thought it was some sort of joke! I've read a few good reviews recently though, makes me think I should give it a go.

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