Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #52: Papers, Please

In Mac, PC on January 17, 2014 at 2:35 am

Title: Papers, Please
Format: PC, Mac
Released: August 8th, 2013

Papers, Please Logo

“Travel broadens the mind”, they say. When it comes to Papers, Please, ‘they’ are goddamn right.

I’ll back up.

Papers, Please casts you as a border patrol officer for the fictional eastern European country of Arstotzka. Your job? To check people’s passport and immigration documents before they enter the country.


“Oh sweet, Jon – a game about paperwork?! Sign me up! While you’re at it, let me do all your tax returns whilst simultaneously potty training your infant!”

First up, don’t be a cunt. C’mon.

Secondly, Papers, Please is one of the most immersive, engaging and nail-biting games I have ever played.

There’s a term that’s being thrown around a lot at the moment (though it was coined in 2007 by the excellent Clint Hocking) called “ludonarrative dissonance”. It sounds wanky, but it’s an important concept: ludonarrative dissonance is when gameplay doesn’t match the story of the game.

Nathan Drake

“Want me to kill this dude? HA! Only joking. You don’t get a say”

In the Uncharted series, for example, you play charismatic, sympathetic treasure hunter Nathan Drake in cut-scenes, but because it’s an action-shooter, you gun down literally hundreds of dudes in the gameplay between these preset, quip-filled cinematics. How do you justify the dissonance between these behaviours and feel sympathy for what is essentially a quasi-invincible killer, whilst not getting wrenched out of the action? Generally, you get over it because the game is fun, well designed and the bad guys are usually zombies, foreign, or – ideally – foreign zombies.

Way back in Games That Rocked #11, I talked about hacking simulator Uplink being “the greatest marriage of form an content in the world of videogames”. Quite aside from quoting myself (no you’re a bell-end!), the point I was laboriously lunging for was that there was almost no divide between the set-up of the game (hack into networks) and how you played (clicked on a screen). The story was, you were a hacker, hacking. The gameplay was, you hacked. This is the polar opposite of ludonarrative dissonance, meaning there was no chance of you being pulled out of the action. As Oscar Wilde once said: “Shit’s immersive, yo”.


Whilst Papers, Please doesn’t quite reach those heady heights (seriously, you’re a hacker…and you play it on a computer…it’s genius!), the story and gameplay of Papers, Please are phenomenally well intertwined.

As mentioned, you play as a border control agent, your sole job being to judge an ongoing queue of immigrants in terms of whether they should enter your country or not. You look at their documents (initially just a passport, but the gameplay escalates in a wonderfully organic way to ramp up the difficulty whilst never feeling like you’re ‘moving onto level 2’), and stamp either green (come in), or red (do one).

Papers, Please Stamp

It’s a job I gave approximately zero thought to until I played Papers, Please, but it’s a unique and intoxicating feeling, being able to decide whether or not someone enters your country. The game, created solely by Lucas Pope, is determined to wring every last inch of tension out of a situation already quite wrung of it, thank you very much.

Here’s the rub, y’see. For every immigrant you process correctly, you are paid. For every one you stamp incorrectly (not noticing that their documents were forged, for example), you are reprimanded. First just with notices and then financially, with ever-increasing penalities for continued screw-ups. “Meh, it’s just money, Jon. So the shit what.” First up, who are you, stupid voice, and secondly, that would be true, were it not for the fact that at the end of every day, you are charged for rent, heat and food for your apartment which you share with your family. So all of a sudden if you don’t process people, your (fictional) family dies.

Papers, Please Stats

Get used to the red

The beauty of creating a game with such a human element in it starts to set in. You read in the (fictional) newspaper of terrible (fictional) atrocities being committed in neighbouring (fictional) countries like Kolechia or United Federation. There’s experimental (fictional) surgery that will save someone’s life, but it’s only available in (fictional) Arstotzka. Problem is, the (fictional) immigrant doesn’t have the correct (fictional) papers. If you don’t let them in, they will (fictionally) die, but if you do, the resulting fine will stop you buying (fictional) medicine for your (fictional) family, and they may (fictionally) die.

All these ‘fictionals’ may seem facetious, but by Jehovah if it comes down to illegally letting a man in to avenge his dead daughter by finding her murderer or making enough money to keep your family warm that night it’s high freakin’ stakes indeed. You will sweat, you will deliberate, then you will realise you have absolutely no time because each day is against the clock and you’ll go with your gut. And feel absolutely horrible afterwards. It’ll stay with you.

Papers, Please Decision

Papers, Please is a game of consequences. Things come back to haunt you, both in your head and in the game. You are given power, and then shown what happens if you screw up. Which you will. It’s a remarkable achievement.

And over the arc of playing, a strange thing happens: you start to sympathise more and more with these small collections of pixels that are begging for access. They’re just frightened, desperate individuals trying to protect their families, just like you. And as events proceed to one of many barnstorming endings, you try to squeeze your way through a desperate, broken system and come out the other end with your family in tow. Spoiler alert: in many circumstances, your heart will break.

Papers, Please Ending

Sounds like a fucking riot

It’s bleak, then, but with rays of such perfect sunshine that it doesn’t do to even talk about them. Seriously, forget you just read that last line. Papers, Please isn’t going to apologise for putting you through the ringer, and you’ll thank it for the pleasure.

And the last, crazy way this game changes your brain? You start to feel sorry for customs officials. They’re just a cog in a massive, terrifying machine over which they have no control, and you are one insignificant item to be processed, on a never-ending conveyor belt producing infinite, infinitesimally different blobs of carbon, their plaintive eyes gazing up as they hand over document after document, hoping nothing goes wrong.

Papers, Please Faces

As someone who’s just left the country to travel abroad, I know the feeling. But looking up at the intimidating immigration agent made it all feel a little less scary. Maybe she’d played Papers, Please. Also, I’m white and not a zombie, so I’ll probably be ok. Yay!

2014-01-17 13.29.01

Get it here, scum!


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