The bald man with spectacles puts his passport on the counter. No entry permit, no ID supplement, requirements not met. Just as you are about to stamp ENTRY DENIED, he slips you a handwritten note. It has 4 pages.
You are hot like fire
You object of desire
You wrap my heart in wire
Approve my visa!
You stamp ENTRY DENIED. He is incredulous: “What! I gave you such a nice note!”
Just another day’s work as an immigration officer for the glorious state of Arstotzka. You work at the border between East and West Grestin, East Grestin being under the control of Arstotzka (sounds familiar?). The player’s role in this game is deceptively straightforward. Follow the rulebook. Check all the documents. Stamp on each passport either to approve or deny an entry visa.
The job is just like the background music: dreadful, dreary, drab. You never seem to earn enough to live comfortably. Your family members alternate being cold, sick, or hungry, because you cannot afford heat, medicine, and food for all of them at once. Every day the rules change and the paperwork mounts: passport, entry permit, work permit, vaccination certificate, the list never ends. In your confusion you begin to err, yet for every error a penalty is deducted from your salary. The pressure to deliver is on.
But how can you expect others to keep up with the Ministry’s ever-changing rules, when even you – as an officer – struggle with them? So you do, against the draconian rules, let some people pass. You grant entry to the woman who hasn’t seen her son in 6 years. You grant entry to the international journalist, who then writes an article condemning you for lax border controls. You deny entry to the next journalist, who condemns you for being a fascist.
You receive so many penalties that the Ministry awards you a plaque not for excellence but for “sufficience”. Being nice comes at a price, and you finally decide that you cannot afford to be altruistic at your starving family’s expense. “Sufficience?” says an angry woman whose entry visa you denied. “You are just like this plaque. Cheap shit.” You try to pretend it doesn’t hurt.
In your frustration, you receive a note from a masked man from The Order, seeking cooperation to revolt against the Arstotzkan government.
There are 20 possible endings, and every decision you make leads you down a different path. As various colourful people come and leave your office, the story unfolds and you are forced to rethink what it means to have a conscience.
You rethink corruption. (In a state where adhering strictly to the draconian rules may cause more harm than good, is corruption always a bad thing? If it is okay to let a wife enter illegally upon her heartfelt pleadings to be with her husband, is it any different if her pleadings came along with a $50 bribe?)
You rethink principle. (You would’ve received a $5 bonus for every person you detained, but you didn’t detain any as a matter of principle. When your sister was suddenly arrested, you didn’t have money to adopt your niece. Your niece disappeared. You never got over it.)
You rethink priority. (To support your family, you can’t afford to break the rules too often. You can’t help everyone. Should you help the shady revolutionary Order, or the ordinary citizen who missed her passport expiration date by a day?)
Amidst all the modern computer games with graphics beautiful enough to mimic reality, Papers, Please is ugly – in more ways than one – and so real in all its ugliness. To tell people “You get to check passports and stamp them, it’s fun!” just doesn’t do justice to it.
This is a game about paperwork. This is a game about humanity.