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iOS app review: Papers, please

27 Mar 2015

Papers Please (iPad, $9.99)

Papers, Please is not a new release. Sorry. Sometimes the App Store’s weekly new release list is just not that interesting (more photo filter apps, really?), so I dived deep and tried to discover something that I had missed from times past.

Papers, Please is from 2013. It’s a game. Kind of. No, it is a game; it’s just not like any game I’ve ever played before. For a start, it’s kind of depressing. Claustrophobic. Unsettling, but not in a horror-game kind of way. It’s also kind of boring. In a hypnotic sort of way. Playing it gives me that same feeling that washing dishes does, in those moments where you suddenly become so entranced by the repetitive motion of the sponge on the ceramics and the smell of lemony chemicals.

Papers, Please is set in a fiction Communist country in the early 1980s. You take on the role of a borders control officer; your job is to check the passports of the incoming migrants and accept the ones that are legit and reject the ones that aren’t. It starts off pretty easy, but as the days pass the rules slowly get more complex, and the documents that each applicant needs to supply for your review get more numerous. As well as this, there are moral choices to make: do you break the rules out of compassion, therefore risking punishment by your superiors? Do you illegitimately detain innocents in order to make more bribes from the overzealous guard who visits you? Between shifts there are other decisions to make—do you spend scarce money on medicine for your sick wife or do you spend it on food for your hungry son? Make the wrong decision too often and your family will start dying. Angry Birds this is not.

There are further complexities and story here too, but to say more would be to spoil. Suffice it to say that things get hard. And weird. But they do so slowly, creepingly, and all the while you’re just stamping documents, breaking hearts, looking over your digital shoulder.

Papers, Please is not for everyone. In fact, I’d wager that most people who try it will not like it. However if you’re the type of gamer who’s after something a bit different, who is both patient and imaginative, Papers, Please might be one of the most unique gaming experiences you’ve ever had. It was for me.