As a child growing up in Singapore, our frequent excursions across the border to Malaysia were always fraught with trepidation. It was intimidating to see that imposing concrete structure on the horizon, to watch the causeway split into tendrils with a booth and a soldier at the end of each one. My overheated mind would fill with imagined slights these armed men might perceive, any one of which would see my family detained or, worse, sent home. They had all the power, these border crossing people.
Back then, getting turned away meant missing out on bootleg videocassettes of Junior or buying socks using (GASP) stronger currency. In Papers, Please, the stakes are much higher. Families can be separated. Patients can be kept from life-saving surgeries. Terrorists, assassins, and human traffickers will all attempt to travel across the line.
Standing before them is you, the only immigration inspector on the Arstotzkan side of the Grestin border. And though you get the final say on who gets entry to your ersatz Eastern European nation, you are not all-powerful. Having received the job by lottery, you are paid a slave wage. Fail to follow strict Ministry Of Admission regulations, and even that meagre pay will be docked, which can leave you short on food and heat for your family. And then illness sets in, putting you on the downward spiral of poverty.
To keep your loved ones alive, you have to sort through the travel documents of an endless line of tourists, immigrants and refugees, checking for discrepancies and making sure everything is in order. You are only paid for civilians who are properly processed, so you have to move fast. But your desk is too small, and your too-thick rulebook keeps changing. The variety is nice, but there’s always something new to overlook, and then your son gets sick from hunger. The day polio came back to Arstotzka—when I had to spend that much more time verifying vaccination cards—nearly killed my family.
The circumstances make it so easy to fall into corruption. When you haven’t had heat in days, it just makes sense to cut a deal with the border guard where he pays you to detain more people. You’re just inconveniencing them, right? But it’s life or death for you. Soon, you’re letting drugs across for 10 credits and a smile. What have we become?
There’s visual interest here, with two-tone characters crudely drawn on plain backgrounds—graffiti slapped against Berlin Wall gray. But it’s not pretty. There’s intrigue here, with story threads involving friendly guards, diplomatic meddling, and rebel cells. But it’s not fun. It’s gruelling, though if you grease your palms enough to alleviate your worries you can find the white-noise satisfaction of a monotonous day job.
But what matters more here are the decisions you make—specifically, the decisions you feel you have to make, the ramifications of those decisions on the faceless mob before you, and how easy it is to stop caring. Papers, Please captures the lack of agency in being a bottom-rung Cold War bureaucrat, barring an anachronistic-feeling body-scanning system that wants to link 1982 to the modern TSA. That’s not just too much, it highlights the game’s other proselytizing. It’s better instead to not think about too hard while you’re playing it. Just put your nose down, do what you think you have to, see where it gets you, and then wonder how you got there.