Matt vs Steam: Papers, Please

Kettlemag, Technology, Video Games, Papers Please
Written by Spaced Oddity

Here it is. The first in a (hopefully) long series of articles about PC gaming and Steam, the digital distribution platform which has turned into a sort of virtual Mecca for gamers. In Matt vs Steam, I (The Matt) will play many video games (on The Steam) and talk about them from a critical, but also somewhat light-hearted standpoint.

Do I hope to convert non-gamers to the sweet temptations of spending many hours a day trying to jump on virtual turtles and collect floating gold coins? Well I’m describing a Nintendo game there and Nintendo games have no place on a PC, so sorry I will not be showing you how to be an 8 bit plumber, but if that is a dream you want to fulfil then I would highly recommend building an obstacle course filled with floating bricks, small turtles, weird genetically altered mushroom creatures and a large flagpole or buying an awesome Nintendo system. However I am looking forward to showing people the wide range of Indie and mainstream games that currently occupy Steam at the moment and why now is a good time to start investing in video games as an art form aswell as entertainment.

So we come to the first game on my quest to play video games and pretend I’m writing about them in a serious way (just kidding editors…yup): Papers, Please. In a nutshell, Papers, Please is a bureaucracy simulator (stay with me) where you play as a passport inspector at a border checkpoint (I know, I know, but please pay attention) who has to decide which people they should let in at the checkpoint by (wait for it) checking their passports and visa information to see if that person meets the criteria for entering the country. Ok, so that may not sound like an exciting premise for a video game, but Papers, Please actually manages to turn the mundane migraine of bureaucracy into a rather intricate puzzler that leans on your senses of observation and attention to detail.

Papers, Please gameplay

The basic gameplay mechanics have you set up at a desk in a border checkpoint. A line of people stand outside your post, as you call them in one by one to present their documents. When a person arrives and hands you their documents, you must check everything is in order by comparing their documents to a rulebook that is on your desk. You must check if names from passports match names on visas, whether the length of stay is the same as what the person tells you at the beginning of the process, if age, sex and race are different to what you perceive by the look of the person (which, like real life, isn’t always as straightforward as it looks) and if the documents that you have received are even valid. During story mode ever evolving political and societal events can change certain factors, such as immigration rules and laws, that can have an effect on your work. For example, during one of my work days my checkpoint was attacked by a terrorist (which let me get off work early, SCORE!).

After it was discovered that the terrorist group was associated with a neighbouring country in which your home country, Arstotzka, currently had shaky relations with, you are told that people trying to immigrate from that particular country were to be rejected regardless of documentation. Of course, if you really wanted to, you could accept them with open arms into your country, but then the costs of these negative actions would be taken out of your pay, which is needed to keep your family from being killed by many of Papers, Please’s many obstacles (such as cold, hunger, sickness). Plus your character is also trying to save money to immigrate himself as Arstotzka is pretty much a Soviet era hellhole with terrible leadership (ugh, but don’t tell the fictional government I said that).

Of course, sometimes you will be tempted to commit negative actions to help people immigrate to your country who are trying to escape their own tyrannical governments, but don’t have the necessary documentation to enter Arstotzka. So there is a lot of reasonable and moral decision making that has to come into play.

During my original playthrough, I let in one half of a couple who were escaping death in their country and rejected the other half, not only to save money but also because I had gotten to the point in the game where I was on a power trip and really just wanted to laugh manically as I watched their little pixilated face sadly walk away. And that right there is why Papers, Please is a satisfying video game. I don’t mean my obvious evil tendencies that seem to only show themselves when I’m controlling a whole pixilated universe in my fingers, but rather the fascinating freedom you are given in making decisions and the whole philosophical standpoint that the game forces you to content with.

Papers, Please isn’t just a game where you simply click options, stamp passports and try to do what is “right”, Papers, Please is about letting the player question themselves in what they perceive to be right. Should I really be rejecting desperate people from a whole country because of the actions of a small radical group? The game says yes, but is that really the right action? Can I afford to be right though? Maybe my sense of morality is different from the games sense of morality? God dammit, why didn’t I just buy the new Battlefield where the only morality is if using the bigger gun is discrimination against smaller guns? (Although to be fair to Battlefield, there is a moral decision in buying the game itself as you have to question whether you want to fund an evil company).

For a game that is simplistic in gameplay nature, Papers, Please really does delve into complex subject matter by engaging players in the most fundamental of gaming mechanics: decision making. It doesn’t matter if you are new to gaming or a veteran gamer, Papers, Please will hook you in with its quirky art style, easy to pick up gameplay and complex decision making. If only real life bureaucracy was this much fun or even as important. Am I saying that tax forms are unimportant? No, but I would like the option to send my tax forms back to a tyrannical country that will execute them even if that makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. I just really don’t want to do tax forms. Glory to Arstotzka!

Papers, Please is available on Steam for £6.99 (but you can probably get it for much cheaper in the Steam sales) and can be played on Windows, Mac OS X, SteamOS and Linux.