When discussing the idea that video games are an artistic medium it is important to acknowledge that every game must be designed purely for fun. Games can delve into emotions, teach lessons, or make the player think. Papers, Please at first glance seems more like work than a game, but as I played I realized the point behind the game. Papers, Please is about living in a totalitarian regime and doing what it takes to survive, and it subtly forces the player to make difficult decisions.
In the fictional authoritarian nation of Arstotzka the player is assigned to a border job in which they must check the passports of incoming people. For every person you correctly admit/deny, you make a pittance of money to pay for rent, heating, and food for your family. Therefore, the player must quickly scan over documents to make as much money possible every day. If you go too fast however, you begin getting fines for mistakes, so the player is constantly teetering on the edge of speed and accuracy. Moreover, you must constantly be on the lookout for terrorist attacks in this dystopian world.
As the player desperately attempts to make enough money to survive, moral dilemmas are presented by some characters who need to enter the country for one reason or the other, but do not have the correct papers. The player must decide between letting them in and taking a fine and possibly jeopardizing their own family, or denying the person and letting them suffer. This is the first major point that Papers, Please makes. We demonize those forced into bad situations by their higher ups. The player is put into the shoes of the border guard who is forced to deny entry, and it become apparent that we should not demonize those who are forced into jobs like this because they really have no other option.
Moreover, the overarching story of Papers, Please also includes some tough decisions. The player is regularly given the chance to defy the totalitarian government by assisting revolutionaries. Of course, this comes with its own risks as betraying either side and getting caught can lead to the end of the campaign. There are 20 different endings to Papers, Please, some are similar to each other, but there are still a plethora of different outcomes depending on your in-game choices. Luckily, you can start at the beginning of any day that you have already played, so in case you make a bad choice that gets you thrown in jail, you can reset to 10 minutes ago very easily. As you play, a newspaper is published everyday that outlines the current events in Arstotzka, and these events are reflected by the daily shift in rules.
It is obvious that Papers, Please is meant to in some ways frustrate the player. The concept of scanning documents for inconsistencies and forgeries is already not exactly considered a “fun” task, but this is exacerbated because of the way the game annoys the player. You are purposely given a cramped space to make document management difficult, and many things in the game are meant to waste your time and make you annoyed. Furthermore, the rules constantly are changed and updated almost daily to keep the player from getting comfortable. Just as I started to get into a rhythm, a new document to check would be required, or I had to start fingerprinting entrants, etc. All these frustrations factor into the idea that this is an awful job, and you want to escape it as soon as possible. Also, since you are annoyed, it is harder to feel sympathy for the people that you are supposed to be admitting or denying to the country. Again, Papers, Please is meant to teach a lesson, working in this authoritarian nation is a matter of life and death, and you must quickly adapt if you want to stand a chance.
Overall, Papers, Please is what I would consider a niche game. I mostly enjoyed it, but I was often frustrated by the constant rule changes, but I understand that was the point of them. Once I got into a rhythm, the game flew by as I grew better at my “job”. I grew attached to some of the repeated characters that constantly show up to your booth and are friendly and I grew to despise the fictional Arstotzka. Papers, Please is the perfect example of a game that exists for more reasons than “dumb fun”, but I realize that not everyone like this type of game as it can easily be perceived as boring. Still, I would recommend this game highly as it does a phenomenal job at making you feel like you are a cog in the government machine. Papers, Please is a short and gratifying game that oozes with creativity and charm.