The DigestVideo

Games Of August 2013: Papers, Please

A Soviet bloc laff riot!

By John Teti • September 18, 2013

Assistant editor Matt Gerardi joins me for the final installment of this month’s Digest, and he’s here to talk about Papers, Please. This is not the sun-shining-est game you’re ever going to play—it casts you as an agent at the border crossing of an ersatz Soviet Bloc country—but I got hooked on it. It burrowed into my psyche, challenging both my concentration and my scruples. I was enjoying myself and wallowing in misery at the same time. If you’re interested, don’t be deterred by the drab exterior—this is a taut experience.

Our snack today is squeezable applesauce. This feels like one of those inventions you’d see on Shark Tank. It would not get any investors. Tastes pretty good, though.

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69 Responses to “Games Of August 2013: Papers, Please

  1. PugsMalone says:

    Oh God, fuck “Invalid Issuing City.” I never even bothered to learn all the right ones.

    This was still a great game, though.

    • ComradePig says:

      This. So many times this.

    • CrabNaga says:

      I memorized the ones for Arstrozka (sp?), not even intending to do so. It’s simultaneously strange and fitting that this happened, since it’s your home country.

      • It also helps that they are somewhat themed. For example, cities from Impor are all pseudo-Asian names like Haihan and Tsunkeido. Not the people unfortunately — you are just as likely to get a “Scott Johnson” from Impor as from the pseudo-US “United Federation”.

    • duwease says:

      I binged enough in my playthrough that I started recognizing which cities were valid.  Then they go and put a valid city in, but NOT FOR THAT COUNTRY.  Gaaaaahhhhhhhhhh….

    • Ferraro says:

      I printed out a cheat sheet so I didn’t have to flip through the in-game book on my virtual desk, just glance down at my real desk.

  2. PaganPoet says:

    Being that my full-time job is in immigration (not as an officer, mind you, but as an immigration lawyer), I would have never imagined that anyone could turn such a dry topic into a game and actually make it fun. I mean, my job is like 90% paperwork. My lord.

    John Teti: “I’m just going to stamp this and ruin someone’s life for what was, probably a typo.”

    I’d recommend you for a job in USCIS and CBP! Remember who got you your job when you get applications with my name on it!

    • Enkidum says:

      The single most unpleasant experience in my life was getting my wife permanent residence in Canada. Immigration are basically paid to be assholes. “Can you provide further proof of the genuineness of your relationship?” after 3 years of marriage and two kids – I dunno if I can do that, actually. 

      • Unexpected Dave says:

        No one with a soul lasts very long in customs and/or immigration. 

      • NakedSnake says:

        I always say that their job is to be “professionally curious”. They always ask me questions that don’t have anything to do with me crossing the border, and I just have to sit there, justifying the decisions I made in my life.

        “So why did you move to Scotland? … You were studying? What was your degree? … Oh, your wife followed you there – was that hard for her? … And how did you support yourself there?”

        All this to enter Canada.

    • Fluka says:

      Wait, you’re an immigration lawyer?

      Like @Enkidum:disqus , one of the most aggravating things I had to do in the past few years was help my husband get his US Green Card.  We’re both two well-educated, well-off people, and he comes from an “easy” European country, but the bureaucracy was still awful enough that we finally just went and got help from a lawyer.

      So I’d like to thank you for making the world a less shitty place!

      • Enkidum says:

        Yeah, after 1.5 years with our application in limbo, with them sending me requests for more documentation every 4 months or so and then forgetting about us after we fulfilled all their unreasonable requests in a ridiculously short timeframe, they sent us a letter saying that our 18 month application period was about to expire and we would have to apply again and restart the whole process. At which point I contacted my MP (congressman for all you US types), and wrote them a pointed letter saying how happy I was to fulfill all their requests, with a final sentence saying that the Right Honourable so-and-so had also taken a personal interest in this case and was happy to assist in any way he could to make things go more quickly. Three weeks later, her permanent residence card arrives.

        First time I ever learned that sometimes you actually do need to threaten people, and that there are entire bureaucracies full of people whose job is not only not to help you, but to do everything in their power to fuck you over, and they simply don’t give two shits that they’re destroying people’s lives. Keep in mind that all this is preventing her getting health care coverage (we had to pay for our daughter’s birth – in Canada!), from getting a job, etc etc etc. Fuck them with a chainsaw.

        We probably had a slightly worse time because she doesn’t come from an easy country (she’s Chinese) and we met and were married in another country entirely (Japan). But, eh, it’s all a long time ago now and I am over it entirely.


        • PaganPoet says:

          Sorry for your horror stories, guys.

          Yep, this is what people like me are here for. I think people going into the process blindly don’t really know a) how confusing and stupid immigration laws (in the US at least) really are and b) how much documentation they need to have prepared to show at a moment’s notice.

          I work specifically with refugees and asylees. It’s easier than general immigration in some ways (they are under a legal status here with a relatively easy pathway to eventual citizenship), but much more difficult in other ways (the fact that many of them come from poor, war-stricken countries that don’t issue legal documents). The work is definitely frustrating many times, kind of dull most of the time, but overall I like it. I definitely like helping and meeting people from all over the world, learning a little about their culture and history, and giving them a bit of help navigating our complicated government.

      • Archdukechocula says:

        The U.S. immigration Bureaucracy was no match for my Serbian wife. She practically invented the crossed t and dotted i. 

    • Enkidum says:

      I remember a friend of mine was in the process of finishing his law degree when I was going through all my immigration woes, and I told him he should become an immigration lawyer. His response was “yeah, if I hate money”. 

      Serious props to anyone like yourself who can keep themselves going in that field, actually helping people for a fraction of what they could be making in almost any other field of law.

    • Chewbacca Abercrombie says:

      People like you are awesome. I don’t know what my wife and I would have done without her immigration attorney there to help us through everything. We just had her interview with USCIS this morning and I’m pretty sure we would have had a much harder time with the whole thing without the attorney helping us every step. The officer conducting the interview said she had no problem with our case and she’d put it through as soon as she could, but their computer system is based out of Colorado and has been down because of the floods! So now I guess we just have to wait like a week maybe to hear when it goes through. Waiting sucks. This has been such a long day.

      • PaganPoet says:

        I’m glad your interview went well. The thing about those interviews in, is it’s completely luck of the draw. You could get an immigration officer who is completely fair and balanced and just wants you to show the documents to prove your eligibility, or you could get a bitter, dead-inside crow whose only joy in life comes from making others miserable.

        • Chewbacca Abercrombie says:

          Thanks. Yeah, I was worried because when the officer called my wife’s name she sounded pissed off and miserable, but when we actually got in there she was very nice. I’ve heard some horror stories about immigration officers that were just out to be assholes and was so relieved we didn’t get one like that.

  3. ProfFarnsworth says:

    This game is so great.  I love the subterfuge and the great ability it has to evoke so much emotion in such a little amount of works and images.  This game really makes me think of V for Vendetta and I like the new ideas it prompts for me about people in crappy jobs and bureaucracies.

  4. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    Hey, check out the banality of all this evil. It’s so banal, you wouldn’t believe.

    I still need to pick up this game, but that $10 would cover heat for the month, and I don’t think my family can only get so cold before they start needing medicine, and I already have a cold, and I just can’t deal with that right now. I got five kids to feed, man.

    • PaganPoet says:

      Don’t forget to pick up your weekly ration of stale bread and wolf milk on your way home. You didn’t lose your voucher, did you?

      • The Tuck Pendleton Machine says:

        Is that the next game of this ilk? Leningrad Line Standing Championship? Voucher and Receipt Stamping Extravaganza (better with Kinect!)?

        • DrFlimFlam says:

          The next game of this style will involve attending dinner parties of friends and ratting them out to the authorities for dissent.

        • i_so_hate_this says:

          You know, a MMO taking place in a paranoid police state would be an interesting undertaking.  Players play either on the side as ruthless state agents or nefarious members of the underground.  And XP is gained by ratting our or entrapping other players for your own political gain.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        No siree, I have my voucher right here. Best part of my day, waiting in the bread line; my four kids will appreciate this.

    • SamPlays says:

      Lets not confuse evil with incompetence, mmmkay?

  5. Effigy_Power says:

    I can’t wait for the sequels, “Family Contact Doctor at a Pediatric Cancer Ward” and “Pet Euthanasia”.

    • Girard says:

      They could easily re-skin this game and have you working at a contemporary American medical insurance company.

      Which is sad as hell.

      • OldeFortran77 says:

        I suspect you have it backwards. Someone took the INS civil service exam and turned it into a game.

      • Enkidum says:

        I loved the idea that “death panels”—a.k.a. panels which decide who is going to get potentially life-saving treatments—were something new that Obummercare was going to introduce. Like, you don’t realize that these things already exist, and are called HMOs?

        • Girard says:

          Apparently “death panels” are less deadly when they work for a private insurance company that has a profit motive to deny customers life-saving care.

          Yeah, I’m not sure how that works, either.

      • Aurora Boreanaz says:

        My most favoritest part of my years working in medical billing and collections was having to call patients and tell them A) they would be sent to collections if their INSURANCE COMPANY took too long to pay us, and B) the lowest payment plan we could do was 20% per month…of a bill that was often thousands of dollars.

        But yeah, repeal Obamacare because ‘Merica’s insurance industry is just perfect!

        • Girard says:

          ‘Obamacare’ has its share of problems, but most people don’t like to admit that those problems mostly stem from it not being socialist enough

        • ProfFarnsworth says:

          I love getting those calls.  Especially when, the person on the other end of the phone was like: “according to our records you owe us…wait, that can’t be right…okay it is…you owe us $884,821.12.”  My wife and I would usually ask what we needed to do next, and they would recommend some sort of payment plan that involved a down payment of $164,000.  Obviously that was entirely in our budgets.

  6. Spoiler Alert says:

    Considering how often I go through international border checkpoints, I think this game would be rather interesting.  Although it does seem to have a kind of “Desert Bus” vibe to it.  Thanks for the review, I’ll have to check it out.

    • No, it isn’t a one-joke game like Desert Bus — stamping passports actually is a fun mechanism. So much so that you actually get excited to detect a forged document and detain the entrant despite the sob story of fleeing persecution or wanting to reunite their family that they have in their defense.

    • Aurora Boreanaz says:

      Liked for username/avatar usage, but not enough spoilers in the comment itself.

  7. Girard says:

    This game looks so…well ‘good’ isn’t the right word, I guess. But it’s definitely at the top of my “games to play when student teaching is over and I actually have time” list.

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       Before I started playing this game, I was pretty sure it was exactly the sort of game I wouldn’t like.  I’m not exactly good at things that require attention to detail and the art-style made me think the game might be a bit pretentious.  It took an hour or so of playing to disabuse myself of that notion.  It is also funner than I might have thought.  While there is quite a lot about the game that is grim, there’s also quite a lot of absurd and black humor running throughout the game.

      The mechanics and design of the game pair well with the themes of the game.  By limiting your view of the world to the interior of the booth (and a bird’s-eye-view of the checkpoint, to reinforce how lone the line to get in is), you are forced to view all these small stories–the desperate tales of the immigrants, intrigues among your co-workers, conspiracies, the state of the world–through a very narrow focus.  Morality, job compentance, and expediency are constantly in the balance.  Your small desk will quickly fill up with debris, but all of it has meaning, from the silly (a brothel handing out business cards) to the instrumental (the rule book never strayed far from my view) to secretive (I won’t reveal any of the deeper plots, but it does get pretty heavy).  I’ve never worked in a cubicle farm in my life, but shuffling though the various papers on my desk felt like it might be a close approximation, only with more at stake.

  8. Merve says:

    It’s Digest Caption Contest time!!! o/

    Here’s the screencap:

    I’ll get the ball rolling:
    “Uh oh, they’re stuck to my face.”

  9. Chip Dipson says:

    It’s pretty cool how original this concept feels. Given the amount of different endings to discover, how long does a typical play-through take?

    • duwease says:

      I played through 2.5 times to get the various majorly different endings/achievements, and Steam says I have 12 hours in-game.  That counts at least one playthrough where I restarted if I lost money to demerits, so a straight playthrough without restarting is maybe.. 4 hours?

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       It depends on how long you last at your job.  The final endings happen after 31 days at your job ,but they are a number of subplots and conspiracies that can lead to an earlier ending.  A typical play-through would probably be anywhere from 2-8 hours.  I couldn’t say how long it might take to get all the endings, though.  I will say the save system is well-implemented for experimentation.  Though the game only saves after every day, you can restart on any of those days and it opens up a new save branch; it makes for a nice graphic representation of your progress in the game.

  10. CrabNaga says:

    This is one of those games where you’re best served by playing through it once up until your first failure and then completely restarting. I didn’t quite realize it on my first playthrough, but you’re paid according to how many people you give visa stamps. On my first go-round, my family was constantly sick, hungry, and cold after like, the 4th day. The second time around, I was able to whiz through the easier days when the bureaucratic elements aren’t fully formed and I had built up a nice nest egg for my family to fall back and allow me to buy the booth upgrades.

    Most of the booth upgrades seem superfluous, but there is one (the last one) that makes them all worth it. You get the ability to have tabs for navigating through the rulebook. TABS! Matt said that the best moment for him was when two documents got consolidated late in the game. I think buying the rulebook tabs was mine.

    I also echo pretty much every sentiment John and Matt had regarding the game. It’s fun, tense, and hard to play for more than an hour. Those 5 seconds after you stamp a visa and send someone on their way are some of the tensest moments in gaming. 

    I disagree with them, though, on the idea that detaining people is bad unless they are a proven criminal. My rule of thumb, much like the first rule of gun safety (all guns are loaded), is that all discrepancies are malicious. I’d constantly wonder whether someone I let through was a criminal, terrorist, or drug dealer whenever I don’t have the opportunity to search or question them due to their documents being in order. The game instilled this bout of paranoia that everyone I meet is probably a terrorist. This isn’t helped by the fact that [SPOILERS] you’ll occasionally let someone through who then proceeds to suicide bomb the interior guards and bring the day to a screeching halt.

    • DrFlimFlam says:

      “You get the ability to have tabs for navigating through the rulebook.”

      If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       The key to keeping your family thriving in the early game is to alternate days on which you pay for heat or food.

      • CrabNaga says:

        I tried doing that, but people just got sick after a day of not paying for food. I’m sure there’s some optimal way to game the system for long-term gains, but I just stuck with buying my family food and heat every day. I know, I know, I’m a heartless monster. 

        • kitbiscuit says:

          I learned that you don’t need to highlight or question irregularities before you get the “reason” stamp. Just deny as soon as you see a discrepancy and it speeds things up SO MUCH. Much easier to feed and heat the family then!

        • Scott Hollifield says:

          I had the same concern but found that the son’s sickness is no big deal, it just means your character will need to purchase some medicine a day later, which is STILL cheaper than buying both food and heat that day.  If you skip food one day, then heat the next, then food, then heat, and so on, you will still be fine.

        • Ferraro says:

          Once you get good at the game (like the second time you start over from the beginning) you’ll fly through the early entrants and be rich. (Rich = $20 in savings)

    • PugsMalone says:

      Getting to activate the stamps and discrepancy finder through hotkeys was more important to me.

      • CrabNaga says:

        I find the discrepancy hotkey to be useful (but the discrepancy double-click shortcut is more of a hindrance than a help), but the ability to get anywhere in the rulebook with just two clicks maximum is a huge time saver.

  11. duwease says:

    This is the first week I managed to play through a Digest game before it was covered, and I managed to hit all three!  It’s a veritable cornucopia up in here.

    I really enjoyed Papers, Please, and I think it highlights a very interesting aspect of the games medium that merits further exploration.  I’m of the philosophy that peoples’ actions are heavily influenced by the incentive structures that they’re placed into, and the experience of playing Papers is something I count as evidence towards that philosophy.

    It’s one thing to see a movie about a person struggling to balance the demands of his society with his personal morals, familial obligations, and basic needs… but I’d argue it’s an entirely different situation to be placed directly into a recreation of that incentive structure and forced to make the decisions yourself.  It’s often surprising what choices you make when you’re put into a situation for the first time, and games like Papers, Please or Spent do a good job of creating the situation for you.

    It’s an exploration that I think creates empathy, or at least understanding.. and it’s unique to the games medium.  I’d love to see more games attempt to leverage this special attribute of the medium.  If the results are anywhere as good as Papers, Please, we could have some real gems.

  12. Indoorsman says:

    This game is so good. Far from being conflicted about moral ambiguity, I just looked out for me and mine.

    Some women begged me to let her in – she’d be killed otherwise – but her paperwork was wrong. Denied!

    “You have doomed me.” she said.

    “Oh boy! Who else can I doom?” I’d make a great bureaucrat.

  13. GaryX says:

    I’ve been meaning to play this ever since I heard about it on The Besties. So many games to get around to.

  14. I love this game — but I wonder what proportion of the gaming public is old enough to remember the hassles at entering Eastern European countries back in Communist days. Yes, customs anywhere are annoying but towards the late 1980s as Communism was failing it basically was “bribe the underpaid agents not to hassle you if you are from a Western nation”. Besides the evil that the customs agents could do to dissidents, refugees, etc., playing as one makes you realize that they were also victims of the system.

  15. Merve says:

    I just realized that the guy who made this game is the same guy who made The Republia Times, which I believe was featured on a past Sawbuck Gamer.

  16. Thompsons says:

    I always found it funny how there was a particularly vocal segment of gamers that shat on Gone Home for being too artsy and dealing with themes like lesbian love stories, and yet none of these same people gave any grief to Papers Please for dealing with a lot of equally controversial issues like immigration, invasive searches, discrimination against the transgendered, being ethical vs being efficient, etc.