A Dystopian Document Thriller.
The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.
Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.
“Papers, Please” is, quite simply, a triumph of game design.
Looking at the game as a simple list of mechanics, it’s nothing special. It’s essentially a “spot the difference” game. However, a few simple design choices make all the difference and turn it into one of the most addicting and compelling games I’ve played in a long time.
The theme makes the game. It’s an entirely believable setting and situation; I could imagine this being based on real events in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The crushing poverty, the political instability and paranoia. It all just works.
The addition of time constraints is an obvious addition to a game such as this. It sets up a conflict between being thorough in your checks and getting as many people through immigration as quickly as possible. Making a mistake can result in being penalized.
Of course, this addition by itself is not what makes the game so genius. You receive money for every immigrant you inspect. At the end of the day, you get a very simple menu showing your income and expenses. Rent, food, heat, etc. You also are caring for your family; you have a wife, a son, as well as your uncle and mother-in-law living with you. Sometimes they will get sick and you need to purchase medicine for them. Sometimes you won’t have enough money to care for everyone. You never even see your family members, but it’s still a gut-wrenching moral decision to skimp on medicine for your uncle and mother-in-law to afford food for your wife and son.
Other moral quandaries arise during your work day. A young girl slips you a note that a man is getting her into the country so that he can sell her into sex slavery. A husband is admitted into the country, but his wife doesn’t have all her documents. Do you admit her, even though it will cost you money you need to keep your family alive? This is how morality is best handled in games. You don’t give people Good or Evil points; you simply put them in tough situations and make them decide what the right thing to do is. You don’t judge them, you make sure they know the consequences beforehand and let them weigh their options. Some will do whatever is the “best move” as far as the game in concerned, but for others it will be painful, and therefore meaningful.
It’s an incredible simple yet deep game. It demonstrates how a solid theme can inform mechanics, and how a few mechanics mixed with the pressures of time constraints and moral decisions can create a rich, engaging, and addicting experience, without having to spend millions of dollars on fancy graphics or effects.
“Papers, Please” is still in development, but you can download a free demo here