Papers, Please


Papers, Please casts you as the doorman to the Iron Curtain.

By Joe Keiser • August 8, 2013

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.

Papers, Please

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.

Papers, Please

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.

Papers, Please

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.

Papers, Please
Developer: 3909
Publisher: 3909
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac
Price: $10

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27 Responses to “Simmigration”

  1. Enkidum says:

    This sounds very good for me, but I can’t imagine choosing to pay for it.

    • Girard says:

      PAYpers, Please.

    • TreeRol says:

      Seriously, how is this not a browser game being reviewed in Sawbuck Gamer?

    • Electric Dragon says:

      $10? [looks shiftily around] I can let you have it for $1, if you take this package across the border for me. Whatever you do, though, don’t look inside. No names, no pack drill, eh? Nudge, nudge. You scratch my back… One hand washes the other hand….

    • Ferraro says:

      You can play an earlier beta through for free, from  It doesn’t have an ending, but I got some solid entertainment out of it. It was weird when I found myself with my feet up on the desk, one hand behind my head, casually rejecting people who didn’t have the new forms that were only introduced that day. …Then there’s subjecting sad-eyed immigrants to nude searches so you can confirm they’re not smuggling weapons.

    • Bureaupath says:

      Well, I thought it was worth the admission. It reminds me a bit of a PC gaming in the 90s. Y’know, games built by a small team that just wanted to make an interesting game, one with a strategic depth and probably a steeper learning curve than normal.

      I also purchased it because it captures well how a typical customer-service oriented job is: Clueless edict issuing managers and never ending customers. Repetitive tasks that require detail, speed, and accuracy but also knowing when to bend the rules to benefit customers (and yourself). Cramped cubicle workspaces stacked with papers and obsolete equipment. The only thing missing is having to smile at customers and always having an upbeat tone in your voice.

      • Marozeph says:

        I bought it on a whim and found it surpisingly enjoyable. There’s something strangely satisfying about shuffling through papers and finding a little discrepancy revealing them as forgery.

        And yes, your comparision with customer-service jobs is fitting. I work in tech support and the game does have similaritys: find out what the guy you’re talking to wants, check if the facts add up and decide what to do with him. Same thing basically (exept for the people getting detained and shot).

      • Enkidum says:

        Yeah, but… I’ve had typical customer service jobs! They paid me appallingly small sums of money to do them, not vice versa!

  2. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    I remember watching a video of someone playing the demo for this a couple months ago. The phrase that keeps coming to mind is “the banality of evil”; I don’t think the player or their character are meant to sympathize with the government, but when you have to weigh potentially good acts against your own interests and the malice of others, it’s certainly not an easy task. The fact that any good you actually do is beyond your reach, but any failures may as well be immediate, must make it a daunting proposition.

    I prefer to play the good guy in games, but most games that have that kind of choice also provide you the means to be good or evil no matter the circumstances. I find it hard to imagine that I would be better than any other “Little Eichmann” in the kind of situation this game presents.

    I have to wonder, does the game even have a “good” ending? You could obviously die, lose your family, or (as shown) be arrested, but is the game just an indefinite struggle to balance your survival against your own morals? Given the game’s allusions to former communist states, it could end with the dissolution of the government, but there’s not guarantee that would help you or your family.

  3. botoru_bandit says:

    dude, you grew up in Singapore? late 80s – early 90s ? yeah….. i have a few Causeway immigration tales meself.

    PS. can’t find a download link in the article.

  4. Brit_in_BRD says:

    Is this review a recommendation? I can’t tell.

  5. DrFlimFlam says:

    It sounds like it does a good job of what many of us encounter in the world, especially anything remotely service-related, where names and faces just become a “them”, nothing more than extras in your starring vehicle.

    As it is, an endless wave of customers sounds too much like my real job.

  6. duwease says:

    I really like ‘social message’ games like this, that place the player in a real-life scenario.  The format is uniquely suited to bypass the normal human attribution bias, which assumes that others only suffer because of their own bad decisions, by dropping the player into a scenario with real-life incentives and penalties, and having them make the decisions themselves.  I believe a greater understanding is had once you are able to directly experience all of the variables at play on your own, and see the outcome.

    This, Spent, Depression Quest, and to a lesser extent even The Walking Dead all contain the ability to surprise the player by how different their actions are once the pressure is applied versus how they would have predicted their actions in a vacuum.  I’d love to see this angle explored more.. I think it’s a capability unique to the medium of gaming, and holds a lot of potential as both an art form and a tool of understanding.

  7. Roswulf says:

     I doubt I will ever play this, but I am so glad that this is a thing that exists.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      I feel the same way. It’s a great socio-political comment on stuff that’s still going on, even if this game looks very Cold-War-ish.
      But I can’t play this. It’s too ghoulish of a job to have to do and I am incredibly glad not to have been born into a society where this is demanded of me. Call me a capitalist, freedom-for-granted-taking American, but man… this is some depressing shit.

  8. DrZaloski says:

    Although I’m super excited that this game had been made, but it more or less screams “Steam Sale” to me. The demo is honestly kinda fun, but I’m hesitant to shell out ten dollars.

  9. Looks fun.
    Anybody played ‘Floor 13’? Old, mostly text-based game casting the player as crisis manager for the British Gov’t. Worth a spin.

  10. josef nelson says:

    doing the internet version of jury duty:meager,not meagre.