Papers Please

Or how shit trickles downwards

Papers, Please

PC  (Played on Steam)

Papers, Please is one of the few games that genuinely made me feel ashamed of myself.  When the consequences of one of my previous decisions became evident I experienced a genuine moment of regret.

Most of us are familiar with the parental scolding ‘Now think about what you’ve done’ and Papers Please never forgets to remind you.

The mechanics are simple.  Approve applicants entry into the country after all forms adhere to the chronically tight border restrictions.

Game play is just like office work.  Efficiency needs to develop so you can process as many applications as possible and bring home enough pay for you and your family to survive.


As with most new tasks you start slow and unsure but eventually build a rhythm,  gradually gaining a daily work like competence.  The more you sort, approve and deny, the quicker and more accurately you can process applications.

A sloppy/messy desk will slow down the sorting of documentation, decreasing efficiency.

This is exactly as exciting as it sounds.  Satisfaction comes when an applicant crosses the border without issues.

A citation is presented via an old time printer when a mistake is made.  A scratching printing sound grates into your brain which notifies you of your mistake in an extremely irritating way.    If you are lucky you get a warning, if not then you are docked pay.

Ninety percent of game play is non satisfying busy work.  However, this is just to lull you into a false sense of boredom before the game firmly punches you in the stomach with a fistful of guilt.

One woman begged me to stop her pimp from following her into the country.  When his turn came for entry I had already gained 2 citations for mistakes made that day.  Refusing a valid passport would cause my wages to be docked, potentially preventing me from purchasing medicine for my sick son.  I approved his entry.

Two days later the newspapers report the murder of local working girls.


On one very rare instance I had to shoot a fleeing fugitive.  I took aim with my cross hair and pulled the trigger, confident that I had the guy in my sights.
The gun was much more powerful than I thought and the bullet continued through the now dead fugitive, cutting down two immigrants that were trying to get to safety.

Papers, Please is one of the finest examples of the unique experience a video game can provide.  In a movie you can watch the downfall of the protagonist and consider how you would act in the same situation.  Could you become sadistic with power?  Could you act horribly out of desperation?

In Papers, Please,  you find out for certain that you are more than capable.

I convinced myself I was selecting the lesser of two evils.  One day I had to deny entry to a woman who was trying to cross the border to her husband.  Her  passport had expired and I couldn’t risk the heating money.  No matter how I justified it to myself I was still the guy responsible for permanently separated a husband and wife.

Much of difficulty in making a moral choice is fueled by the government that you serve.  A government that expects your sole, low paying job to feed, shelter and keep warm your entire family with a salary that will almost certainly never cover all 3.  If a family member dies to illness then you are fired for not maintaining a strong healthy family image.

One military official started demanding I approve entry for certain people.  However they almost never had the correct documentation, causing the system to still give an official citation.  So either I approve them and my family goes hungry or I deny access and risk the wrath of the commander.

Much of the awfulness in the world was put in perspective.  To make enough money I made an agreement with one of the guards.  For every person I send his way for detention I get a cut of his commission.  So, to keep on top of my bills I had applicants arrested for any reason I could find.


The opportunity to allow smuggling, or just to straight up take bribes became very appealing.

In the end it could not last and the balance of law breaking for survival and law keeping from fear was no longer sustainable.  Everything was going to soon come crashing down and all that matter was how I was going to survive.

The game closes with one more difficult decision and a final scenario that made me reflect on every single person I had turned away up until that moment.

Papers, Please isn’t a mechanically complex game, nor is it’s graphical fidelity anything to celebrate.  It is however, extremely effective with it’s limitations and below its simple concept exits enormous depth.


It isn’t so much a pleasant experience as much as it a gripping and engaging one.  You won’t have as much fun as you will dilemmas that will compel you to keep going.  It is a game that I would recommend anyone play through at least once.

To make a comparison to other media – specifically movies and books – there are some stories that aren’t fun.  They are however, well told portrayals of the darker and desperate side of people.  Books like Dune and films like Once Upon a Time in America; where people become warped into monsters because their intentions and environment primed them to act in such a despicable way.

Ill probably never watch the aforementioned book or film again – for the same reason I won’t play Papers, Please again.  It’s too effective in showcasing how anybody is capable of well meaning,  terrible things.