Papers, Please: A Dystopian Document Thriller is a puzzle video game created by indie game developer Lucas Pope, developed and published by his company, 3909. The game was released on August 8, 2013, for Microsoft Windows and OS X, for Linux on February 12, 2014, and for the iPad on December 12, 2014. A port for the PlayStation Vita was announced in August 2014.
Papers, Please has the player take the role of a border crossing immigration officer in the fictional dystopian Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka, who has been and continues to be at political hostilities with its neighboring countries. As the officer, the player must review each immigrant and return citizen’s passports and other supporting paperwork against a list of ever-increasing rules using a number of tools and guides, allowing in only those with the proper paperwork, rejecting those without all proper forms, and at times detaining those with falsified information. The player is rewarded in their daily salary for how many people they have processed correctly in that day while being fined for making mistakes; the salary is used to help provide shelter, food, and heat for the player’s in-game family. In some cases, the player will be presented with moral decisions, such as approving the entry of a pleading spouse of a citizen despite the lack of proper paperwork, knowing this will affect their salary. In addition to a story mode which follows several scripted events that occur within Arstotzka, the game includes an endless mode that challenges the player to process as many immigrants as possible.
Pope came upon the idea of passport-checking as a gameplay mechanic after witnessing the behavior of immigration officers through his own international travels. He coupled this with a narrative inspired by spy thriller films, having the immigration officer be one to challenge spies trying to move in or out of countries with fake travel documents. He was able to build on principles and concepts from some of his earlier games, including his The Republia Times from which he also borrowed the setting of Arstotzka from. Pope publicly shared details of the game’s development from its onset, leading to high interest in the title and encouraging him to put more effort into the title; though he initially planned to only spend a few weeks, Pope ended up spending about nine months on the title.
Papers, Please was positively received on its release, and it has come to be seen as an example of an empathy game and a demonstration of video games as an art form. The game was recognized with various awards and nominations from the Independent Games Festival, Game Developers Choice Awards, and BAFTA Video Games Awards, and was named by Wired and The New Yorker as one of the top games of 2013.
The gameplay of Papers, Please focuses on the work life of an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint for the fictitious country of Arstotzka in the year 1982. At the timeframe of the game, Arstotzka has recently ended a six-year-long war with a neighboring country, and political tensions between them and other nearby countries remain high.
As the checkpoint inspector, the player reviews arrivals’ documents and uses an array of tools to determine whether the papers are in order for the purpose of arresting certain individuals such as terrorists, wanted criminals, smugglers, and entrants with forged or stolen documents; keeping other undesired individuals like those with no polio vaccine including anti-vaxxers, expired vaccines, missing required paperwork, or expired paperwork out of the country; and allowing the rest through. For each in-game day, the player is given specific rules on what documentation is required and conditions to allow or deny entry which becomes progressively more complex as each day passes. One by one, immigrants arrive at the checkpoint and provide their paperwork. The player can use a number of tools to review the paperwork to make sure it is in order. When discrepancies are discovered, the player may interrogate the applicant, demand missing documents, take the applicant’s fingerprints while simultaneously ordering a copy of the applicant’s identity record in order to prove or clear either name or physical description discrepancies, order a full body scan in order to clear or prove weight or apparent biological sex discrepancies, or find enough incriminating evidence required to arrest the entrant. There are opportunities for the player to have the applicant detained and the applicant may, at times, attempt to bribe the inspector. The player ultimately must stamp the entrant’s passport (or temporary visa slip if the individual has no passport) to accept or deny entry unless the player orders the arrest of the entrant. If the player has violated the protocol, a citation will be issued to the player shortly after the entrant leaves. Generally, the player can make two violations without penalty, but subsequent violations will cost the player increasing monetary penalties from their day’s salaries. The player has a limited amount of real time, representing a full day shift at the checkpoint, to process as many arrivals as possible.
At the end of each in-game day, the player earns money based on how many people have been processed (5 credits for each individual that enters the booth before the shift ends) and bribes collected, less any penalties for protocol violations, and then must decide on a simple budget to spend that money on rent, food, heat, and other necessities in low-class housing for themselves and their family. The player must also make certain not to earn too much money in illegitimate ways, lest his family be reported and have all the money they had accumulated thus far confiscated by the government. As relations between Arstotzka and nearby countries deteriorate, sometimes due to terrorist attacks, new sets of rules are gradually added, based on the game’s story, such as denying entry to citizens of specific countries or demanding new types of documentation. The player may be challenged with moral dilemmas as the game progresses, such as allowing the supposed spouse of an immigrant through despite lacking complete papers at the risk of accepting a terrorist into the country. The game uses a mix of randomly generated entrants and scripted encounters. Randomly generated entrants are created using templates.
A mysterious organization is known as EZIC also appears, with several of its members appearing at the checkpoint, giving the inspector orders to help bring down the government and establish a new one; the player can choose whether to help this organization or not, letting their members through to assassinate certain powerful individuals the organization deems too corrupt to live and even personally killing two high-ranking officials for the organization.
The game has a scripted story mode with twenty possible endings depending on the player’s actions, as well as some unlockable randomized endless-play modes.
Papers, Please received positive reviews on release, with an 85 out of 100 rating from 40 reviews. Papers, Please has been praised for the sense of immersion provided by the game mechanics, and the intense emotional reaction. CBC News’ Jonathan Ore called Papers, Please a “nerve-racking sleuthing game with relentless pacing and dozens of compelling characters – all from a desk job”. Simon Parkin writing for The New Yorker blog declared Papers, Please the top video game of 2013. He wrote: “Grim yet affecting, it’s a game that may change your attitude the next time you’re in line at the airport.” Some critics received the story very well; Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of The Escapist’s series Zero Punctuation lauded the game for being a truly unique entry for 2013 and even made it one of his top five games for that year; he cited the game’s morality as his reasoning by explaining that “[Papers, Please] presents constant moral choices but makes it really hard to be a good person… while you could waive the rules to reunite a couple, you do it at the expense of your own family… You have to decide if you want to create a better world or just look after you and yours.”
Wired listed Papers, Please as their top game for 2013, recognizing that the game’s title, often coupled with the Hollywood representation of Nazi officials stopping people and demanding to see their identification, alongside the drab presentation, captured the ideas of living as a lowly worker in a police state,
Some critics reacted against the paperwork gameplay. Stephanie Bendixsen from the ABC’s game review show Good Game found the game “tedious”, commenting “while I found the issues that arose from the decisions you are forced to make quite interesting, I was just so bored that I just struggled to go from one day to the next. I was torn between wanting to find out more, and just wanting it all to stop.”
Papers, Please is considered by several journalists as an example of video games as an art form. Papers, Please is frequently categorized as an “empathy game”, a type of role-playing game that “asks players to inhabit their character’s emotional worlds”, as described by Patrick Begley of the Sydney Morning Herald, or as described by Pope himself, “other people simulators”. Pope noted that he had not set out to make an empathy game, but the emotional ties created by his scenarios came about naturally from developing the core mechanics.
Papers, Please won the Seumas McNally Grand Prize, “Excellence in Narrative”, and “Excellence in Design” awards at the 2014 Independent Games Festival Awards and was nominated for the Nuovo Award. The title also won the “Innovation Award” and “Best Downloadable Game” at the 2014 Game Developers Choice Awards. The game won “Best Simulation Game” and was nominated in the categories of “Best Game”, “Game Design”, and “Game Innovation” at the 2014 BAFTA Video Games Awards. As of March 2014, at the time of the BAFTA awards, Pope stated that the game had sold 500,000 copies.