Papers, Please is a game where you are tasked with checking and confirming the validity of national immigration documents.
And it’s really good.
Lucas Pope’s 2013 indie title places you at an immigration checkpoint in the fictional country of Arstotzka during the 1980s. The core aspects of the gameplay are simple enough, you check the documents required for entry to ensure the information displayed on said documents isn’t forged or incorrect. However, with each new level of the game, new restrictions are issued by the government, causing the verification process to be more and more thorough with a greater risk of error. The truly interesting aspects of the game come from your choices within Papers, Please. Fairly often, you’ll have immigrants show up at your checkpoint with an expired entry permit, or perhaps they are missing an identification supplement–before you turn such immigrants away, they’ll inform you that they’re trying to enter the country in order to have a critical surgery, or to visit their dying mother. In these moments, you have to choose between putting your paycheck at stake or holding true to the regulations enforced by your governmental superiors. The game doesn’t make it easy to leave much room for compassion, either, as your family is at constant risk of going hungry or dying of sickness… and it’s the amount of money you bring home after each level that keeps your family alive.
After several levels, the overarching narrative of the game pulls you into the core of a revolutionary uprising–a position where you’re able to choose between supporting mysterious freedom fighters while putting your family at risk or sticking to the safety of the obviously oppressive government. Papers, Please shows itself as an exercise in moral relativity–one where the gap between the “approve” and “deny” stamps at your characters desk feels much wider than you’d think.