Papers, Please [$7.99 (HD)] is a weird game, as it's incredibly difficult to succinctly describe in a way that makes it sound even vaguely fun. Developer Lucas Pope (Of Helsing's Fire [$0.99] fame!) manages to turn pedantry and tedium into gameplay elements and in the process crafts an experience that will likely be among the most memorable games you've played this year. It's been out on the PC for about a year now, but much like FTL [$9.99 (HD)], it always felt like Papers, Please truly belonged on the iPad.

Set in the fictitious dystopian Eastern Bloc-ish country of Arstotzka, players assume the role of a newly assigned border control officer. The basic gameplay loop involves tapping the speaker on the top of your post to summon the next potential immigrant, asking them, "Papers, Please," and then inspecting their documentation. This involves flipping through in-game reference materials and tools to make sure issuing cities of passports are correct, document seals are in order, and everything matches across the various forms and identification you're given. As the game progresses, additional documents (and security screenings) are added to the protocol you and entrants must follow, which quickly amps up the complexity of allowing or denying entry.

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Papers, Please has been labeled an "empathy game," and it's really hard to come up with a better way to describe it. Despite being the main gameplay element, the act of checking everyone's paperwork quickly becomes secondary to other events that transpire. I'm incredibly reluctant to offer any specifics, as discovering these things is a large part of the experience, but let's just say... Not everything is as easy as black and white in Arstotzka. You will be put in many situations where you're forced to decide when rules should be broken, often leading to consequences for you and your family.

The problem with bending the rules is every error you make (intentional or not) results in an infraction from the Arstotzkian government. Each day you get two infractions without penalty, but any after that will set you back five in-game dollars. Working as a state official in a pseudo-communist country doesn't pay well. You'll often struggle just to feed and house your family, and when anyone gets sick, that's where you're put in the position of making difficult decisions. Someone approaches the border without proper paperwork and a story that pulls at your heartstrings, potentially revolving around love or loss- Do you let them through, potentially at the personal cost of not being able to afford medicine for your son?

IMG_0017I'm trying hard to tap dance around specifics, as the events the game throws at you are really best experienced without knowing they're coming. Some are upsetting to the point that you'll reload your game save over and over just to see if there's any chance you can make different decisions to prevent it. Others are hilarious, such as your multiple encounters with the recurring character Jorji Costava which the game doesn't waste any time introducing you to.

What's so strange about Papers, Please is I'm not even sure I'd describe the game as fun. As mentioned, the core gameplay loop involves a intentionally repetitive and mundane task. The setting is incredibly depressing at times, particularly as the game succeeds in storytelling so well that it actually can be stressful to play. Again, without spoiling anything, we'll use the sick children example: Money is tight in Arstotzka, and not being able to pay your rent brings your life to an end. Sometimes things are so tight that you need to perform an entire day's work flawlessly, which actually really stressed me out, as one tiny mistake can quite literally mean the death of your sick and hungry son back home.

I think that's what I love so much about Papers, Please. There are few games on the App Store that can invoke this level of emotional connection. You will genuinely feel bad for people who need to get into your country but can't. You'll be forced to decide if you want to detain these people for minor infractions (resulting in a monetary kickback from your guard friend, which your family may need) or just send them on their way. It's these things that make Papers, Please something you simply must experience- And it helps that the iPad feels like the definitive way to play it.

IMG_0033Doing your job in Papers, Please (obviously) involves shuffling around lots of paperwork. It worked fine on the PC, but as mentioned before, it always felt like a mouse cursor was the wrong way to control the game. It's much better, and far more intuitive with touch controls, particularly as you unlock the multitouch ability for 10 in-game bucks- if you can afford it. The pixel art is crisp, and all the music and sound from the PC version has carried over flawlessly.

Really my only complaint with the game, and this is very minor, is that it feels vaguely misleading to boast that it has 20 endings. While technically true, it's more accurate to say that there's a "good" ending, an "ok" ending, a "bad" ending, and 17 different game over conditions. For instance, running out of money and getting put in jail because you can't pay for your apartment counts as an "ending." It reminds me of old school Choose Your Own Adventure novels and counting the whole "Turn to page 196, you're killed by a boulder" as an "ending." Technically true, sure, but it's not what you're looking for.

Regardless, seeing all the different endings is pretty easy thanks to a shockingly great game save manager. You're able to load any day, and taking different actions on that day splits following days into their own timeline which you can do the same with. It's really neat, because as long as you remember a specific event happened on a specific day, and you want to go a few days forward to see how it plays out before ultimately going back, you can. This is one of those things that the game totally didn't need, and no one would ever have even said anything if it just had three save slots or something, but just makes it that much better.

Oh, and if you're really into checking paperwork, the game has an unlockable endless mode. You need to fully beat the game to get the code you need to input (or you can just look it up on Google). Once inside, you can play three different modes: Timed (10 minutes to process as many people as you can): Perfection (Game ends at first mistake), and Endurance (Game ends when you can no longer pay your bills). Additionally, there's four different options for which documents and security features the game throws at you ranging from the minimal tasks towards the beginning of the game to the full enchilada at the end.

Papers, Please may not be what you'd typically describe as a fun video game, but it's an incredibly clever experiment in storytelling that succeeds in what it sets out to do in ways you won't expect. I've never played anything like it, and it's hard to think of many other games which similarly explore the highly political themes the game approaches in such a thought provoking manner. If you've got an iPad, you need to clear your schedule and play through Papers, Please

Glory to New Arstotzka!

TouchArcade Rating

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  • VirtualBoyFreak

    As you say, the savegame is ideal, but in my case I prefer beginning a fresh new game each time I reach an ending, because perfection at the beginning of the game (first 3-4 days) is crucial for the rest of the gaming experience 🙂

  • PoloBaquerizoH

    A totally must have gem exclusive for my ipad

  • hyperthyme

    Glory to Arstotzka.

  • Zephram

    Maybe I'm dead inside, because I don't feel much of anything while playing the game. I think the anti-eastern bloc theme is so over the top that it just seems rather funny in an absurdist sort of way.

    • aaroncantsleep

      Could it be that they were going for that?

    • bababewey

      I think that's what he was going for.

    • Heinrich Mugabe

      Clearly you haven't lived in any east bloc communist country. The game is very mild compared to the actual procedures at the Iron Curtain borders. People trying to get out and being shot while crossing the border was a norm. The game is actually quite liberal, you need four or five papers and you are trough. Imagine in Russia that time people couldn't even freely travel from city to another city. If you even had the money, still you waited for your crappy plastic two stroke 600cc engine car for more then 10 years. In Germany :-). And so on. You guys have no idea..

  • spblat

    For those who like the game, what's your assessment of replay value?

    • http://toucharcade.com Eli Hodapp

      Well, I mean, that's sort of the purpose of the endless mode. Aside from that, there are definite points in the game where you make decisions that impact the overall outcome of the story.

      • gmattergames

        Only comparison review made was its similarities to choose-your-own adventures, any other games it's comparable to?

      • Fooruman

        I'm trying, but I can't think of a game I've ever played that's quite like Papers, Please. It has some things in common (like the way endings work) with choose your own adventure stories, as the review indicates, but even that is far from a perfect comparison.

        It's very deep in story and setting development, and ultimately it's a game about making difficult choices. You can try to be a 'good guy' and fight the power of your oppressive government, but you have to be careful if you do, because doing the wrong thing could result in dire consequences for your family. You can also try to follow the rules to the letter, but if you go that way, you'll very likely cause perfectly decent human beings to suffer because of your decisions.

        If you judge the game solely by the central mechanic of examining documentation, then it's probably going to seem monotonous or even boring to you. However, if you take the game in as a whole, and look at it as a vehicle for telling a very compelling narrative about hard decisions and sacrifice, then you'll see the game for the masterpiece it really is.

    • NickyNichols

      Each day is different too, you can replay a day and have completely different people come through the queue

  • NickyNichols

    Definitely 5 out of 5, one of the best games I've ever played. So glad to have it on iPad now!

  • bruab

    I was in my third game and I had a person come up to the desk and not give me any papers. He just stood there. I tried highlighting things to interrogate him about where his papers were, but nothing came up as a discrepancy. Seems like a bug.

    • NickyNichols

      Highlight the rule in the book and the desk directly under the person.

      • bruab

        Ah, the desk is what I was missing. Thanks!

  • keshi0

    God i wish this was available on iPhone. It looks fantastic.

    • Nik

      +1. Does anyone know if this is coming to iPhone sometime soon?

      • Mike B

        The dev has stated that he thinks playing on an iPhone is too small of a physical space for this game. So I wouldn't hold my breath, even though I would love to have it on iPhone in addition to my iPad.

      • Heinrich Mugabe

        Perhaps even on ipad mini it's already quite difficult to shuffle all the papers and being stressed out to do it right and quickly ;-).

      • Mike B

        That's what I play the game on actually, and I have no problem under pressure. But playing on an even smaller screen would probably be a pretty tricky feat.

  • hervin89

    Getting money in this game is HAAAARD! First play through and my whole family died.
    This is defiantly a weirdly fun game for what it is.

    • iamheffe

      Speed is the key... The more people you get through the better the paycheck.

  • Maglor

    ⊂_ヽ
      \\ Λ_Λ
       \( 'ㅅ' ) This is ☆☆☆☆☆.
        > ⌒ヽGlory to Arstotzka.
       /   へ\
       /  / \\
       レ ノ   ヽ_つ
      / /
      / /|
     ( (ヽ
     | |、\
     | 丿 \ ⌒)
     | |  ) /
    ノ )  Lノ
    (_/

  • Mike B

    Best game I've played on the ipad in a long while. I am hooked!

  • tpianca

    Why is the price on the green button 5.99 and in the text 7.99?

    • Lickzy

      Because in Soviet Arstotzka, game plays you!

    • Harti

      I'm guessing a strategic price increase to pay TA for posting the review? 😀
      I was really on the fence for this one and after reading the review I was convinced.
      It's a little awkward to say but the €1.5 price increase kinda held me off for now.

      I wonder why our perception of these prices is so harsh - I just bought a cup of coffee for €1.2 and it's totally fine for me, but paying marginally more for a high level iOS game is a no-go?!

    • Tomate Diseño

      When the game initially came out it had a discount for a couple of days, which is a nicer way of doing it than being out for a week then going half price.

  • radioactive_pal

    I would argue nudity is a fundamental part of the game's tone; it is also a corollary to today's TSA body scans. To suggest that those who want the full effect of the game are whiney perverts perverts is highly reductive. We are not the same people who complain about Monument Valley pricing; we just want to experience the game as it was originally conceived. Their course correct is totally because of the pressure. If this weren't such a high profile game, I guarantee the nudity ban would have stayed.

    • Fooruman

      What does that have to do with the review you're commenting on?

    • Jake7905

      While I completely agree with you, why post that here? It seems like you've gone to the wrong barn to beat a dead horse.

  • crispin

    "Boarder"?

  • anabolicMike

    Great game

  • http://twitter.com/2peteshakur 2peteshakur

    ok, so i got the multitouch unlocked now, erm wot is it supposed to do, im not sure how to use it?...

Papers, Please Reviewed by Eli Hodapp on . Rating: 5