Why should I subject myself to this again? That was my question after a final round of Papers, Please, a game on PC in which you assume the role of an immigration inspector. Many critics have praised this indie title from developer Lucas Pope as an original and unique experience. Justin McElroy of Polygon, for example, calls the game “a meaningful exercise in misery.” Indeed, Papers, Please has convinced some people that it’s in their best interest to be miserable.
You see a lot of people as you guard the border of Arstotzka, a fictional country that brings the U.S.S.R. to mind. Given that each character has his or her own appearance, I’m surprised the graphics bore me as much as they do. Almost everyone looks like a gloomy crayon. More attention to color would’ve made the proceedings more human. I also find it strange that the game doesn’t bother depicting your family, whom you’re providing shelter, food and medicine to. If I’m supposed to identify with the life of an immigration inspector, shouldn’t I be able to see his loved ones? In Papers, Please, the family members are text. So much for feeling human.
The musical theme is oppressive, which goes along with the nihilistic theme of the game. You’ll also hear the same sounds every day at work, reinforcing the idea that you’re a cog in a machine.
Some have called Papers, Please a puzzler, but it’s more of a point-and-click simulation. Every day, you decide who enters the country of Arstotzka. After you call the next person in line, he or she gives you papers that you have to analyze. New regulations are introduced by the government each day, giving you more and more things you have to check in order to identify who can legally enter Arstotzka. Being quick is key: the more people you process, the more money you make to provide for your family. The catch is that if you overlook discrepancies between documents or let someone through because of a sob story, you eventually get penalized and jeopardize your family’s well-being.
All of this is quite original for a video game, but originality doesn’t mean a good time. Real-life tedium is a theme, as you gotta keep turning pages — back and forth, back and forth — with a minimal amount of space to lay out the documents for cross-analysis. Minute details must become your expertise, or you lose. This is all very revolting. I already work 40 hours a week in real life. Why the hell should I play a game that feels like a second job?
One counterargument is that Papers, Please has something important to show me. But the question is what? Before playing this game, I would have assumed that being an immigration inspector sucks. I already know immigrants can have very tough lives. And it’s obvious that governments can have xenophobic policies. Like Democracy 2, Papers, Please attempts to demonstrate how political decisions aren’t easy to make because they involve the well-being of humans on both sides. But rather than provide anything more insightful than a premise, the game showers you with dread and repetitive fact checking. Not to mention that most of the “moral” conflict is bullshit designed to create guilt. In real life, would you risk your son’s life to help an immigrant who merely claims she’s going to be killed in her homeland? Should you feel guilty for favoring your son’s well-being in this situation? Of course not.
When Papers, Please gets interesting, it gets questionable. Later in the game you are able to view naked pictures of people for clues, but doesn’t playing a game that allows you to do this kind of make you feel like a damn weirdo? Seriously, why should people play Papers, Please other than to torture themselves? You’re better off playing something like Will You Ever Return? 2, an unconventional game about overcoming guilt and achieving catharsis — the polar opposite of the depressing malaise that is Papers, Please.
I can’t imagine the agony of trying to get all of the game’s 20 endings, most of which are probably depressing. I stopped playing Papers, Please after my morbid curiosity wore off. Simply put, what you get in return isn’t worth the trouble of playing this game. Apparently, you unlock an “Endless Mode” if you beat the game the right way, but an endless assault of Papers, Please sounds like cruel and unusual punishment.
I knew Papers, Please had been lauded as video game art, but I don’t think expectations ruined my appreciation of the game. After all, fans of Papers, Please have admitted the game is no fun. I’m just telling you it’s a waste of time.