Papers, Please Review: Glory to Arstotzka (PC)

Papers, Please is a fun indie political simulation game released in 2013 by Lucas Pope. The player takes on the role of a Border Checkpoint Inspector for Arstotzka trying to solve the complex and puzzling mess of immigration papers. It mixes unique puzzle mechanics with subtle story telling.

Paper's, Please Review: Glory to Arstotzka

Welcome to glorious Arstotzka, and congratulations! In this game, The Ministry of Admission has randomly selected you to become an Inspector of the Grestin border checkpoint. Your job is to allow those with the proper and accurate paperwork into Arstotzka and deny all those who don’t. The first thing you have to do is ask the entrant for their papers, please.

The pay is meager, and you have a family to support. If you mistakenly allow or deny entrants, your paycheck gets deducted. If the officials discover that you are colluding with rebels or accepting bribes, it will be even worse for you and your family. Just remember, pay attention to little details, keep your desk organized, balance your finances, and glory to Arstotzka.

If you can’t stand Arstotzka’s oppression, perhaps you can use your new position for a different cause. Many people are desperate to get in and are willing to provide “financial incentives” to make your life at home cozier if you are smart about it. Or perhaps you can use your new authority to aid certain underground groups to topple the regime and liberate Arstotzka.

Papers, Please is currently available on PC for $9.99, Google Play, and Apple Store for $4.99.

Papers, Please - Trailer

Story – More Than Just Paper-Pushing

The story is quite interesting. As mentioned earlier, you are an inspector for a border checkpoint. Although It may seem like you are doing menial and repetitive work, at first, more is happening under the surface. For those who know a bit of Cold War history, the Grestin border can appear pretty analogous to the Berlin Wall of post-World War Two. Accordingly Arstotzka represents the Soviet Union at the time with its corruption, arbitration, and cruelty. Soon as people get to your booth, you will see many struggling, either because of personal/financial situations, war refugees, or clerical errors causing problems. And you have the power to do something about it.

Your new involuntary workplace.

Your new involuntary workplace.

How You Handle It

Indeed it is up to your moral compass, or roleplay, to decide whether to follow the rules as written and leave them to their fate. Or if you break the rules to help them and potentially get you in trouble. Or to only break the rules if they bribe you. You may even decide to work with or betray the rebels planning on fighting the Arstotzka regime.

As the in-game days progress, events will happen that will change how you need to approach each entrant. For example, early on, Kolechia, a nation previously at war with Arstotzka, will commit terrorist attacks at the border. The next day, you have to search for every entrant from Kolechia.

What they lack in subtlety, the rebels make up with flair.

What they lack in subtlety, the rebels make up with flair.

How you handle all these situations determines which of the 20 possible endings you will get.

Gameplay – Be Fast, Be Accurate

The general gameplay is deceptively simple. You go to your booth, read the rules, call on the entrant, ensure they have all their papers, deny or approve their entry, and move on to the next. As the days progress and if certain events occur, more rules and regulations get added that you need to look out for. 

Work Phase

Do the dates match the entry permit and identification? Is there a misprint of the name? Is the proper logo on the forms? Does their weight and height match their id? Does their passport have the correct issuing city from their home country? Have any of the dates expired? Does the permit say the purpose is visiting, but the entrant says something different? Does the entrant look like their passport photo, and if not, does their fingerprint match?

This is why you need to pay attention and keep your desk organized.

This is why you need to pay attention and keep your desk organized.

All these questions and more you have to consider. If you miss even one detail, that can cost you some money. If something appears wrong in any form, you can interrogate the entrant, have them searched, or even have them arrested.

Home Phase

And you have to process all of this fast, the more people you get through during your shift, the more money you make. Once the Work phase is over, you go home to manage your tiny earnings to care for your family, such as paying for food and heat for the harsh winter. If your family dies or gets into debt, it’s game over.

We aren't making any money, but at least we are warm and eating.

We aren’t making any money, but at least we are warm and eating.

After that, it’s on to the next day with new or additional rules to keep track of. Fascinatingly, there is a lot of freedom in every interaction, and Papers, Please, won’t hold your hand. In the game, you live in a Tyrannical Regime that severely punishes any infraction or perceived infraction. 

Looks like I was served papers this time.

Looks like I was served papers this time.

In my first play-through, I roleplayed as a loyal worker, and when a member of the Ministry of Investigations approached me, I turned in some forms that I believed to be from rebel groups. He arrested me for “Suspicion of working with the rebels,” and I got “Too honest” achievement. Ending number 3 of 20 in Papers, Please.

Graphics/Audio – Simple, but Effective

The graphics are a mix of high and low-detail pixel art. The entrants entering your booth are detailed, allowing you to see their faces, hair, and clothes. Strangely, skin and hair colors are all over the place. Some characters have natural human colors, and some have odd colors like blue or green. If I were to guess, I’m pretty sure it’s symbolic or meant to evoke an emotion, but I’m not sure what.

Your desk and the papers are also highly detailed to make it easier to read the forms. Everything else is low-detail pixel art, such as the cutscenes and the border. The art gives you just enough to understand what is happening while allowing your imagination to fill in the blanks, such as seeing the violence that can occur at the Grestin border.

With Arstotzka-Approved graphics like these I can spot when a Kolechia tries to smuggle weapons.

With Arstotzka-Approved graphics like these I can spot when a Kolechia tries to smuggle weapons.

Papers, Please’s theme, and cutscene soundtrack is a catchy 8-bit sounding music. Those two songs are about all I can remember. During the border inspecting phase, there is pretty much no music. Which, while realistic, can make the game feel more like an actual office job. and can make it hard to enjoy watching people stream it unless they add music of their own. 

I feel like the game could benefit from adding more music, and if they wanted to make it more realistic, have it diegetic with a radio in your booth playing Arstotzka-approved songs/propaganda. And if that is too distracting for players, they could press the off button on it or turn down the volume wheel.

Papers, Please was reviewed on PC.

Overall, Papers, Please is an entertaining and short puzzle game. It makes excellent use of its system to tell a good story about the mundane horrors of a totalitarian system and the small evils that add up. For the price on Steam, it would be a great game to play on a long road trip or air travel. Though with the speed and precision required to go through the documents I don't know how well this would work on a touchpad system like the Steam Deck.
  • Interesting story with realistic dark tone.
  • Clever puzzle system that rewards you for attention to detail and speed.
  • Fun moral dilemmas to either consider or roleplay.
  • Tutorial is not super clear.
  • Lack of music.
  • Gameplay is a tad repetitive.

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