Review: Papers, Please for iPad12 Dec 2014 0
Like my caveat from the Out There preview, I want to tell you that if you've never played Papers, Please before, you should stop reading right here and just go play it. It's a remarkable experience and I'm pretty sure you've never played a game like it before. Don't read the rest of this review, lest it blunt your experience of the game. See you later, chum.
If you played Papers, Please in its original PC incarnation and are just here to find out if the port is technically solid -- oh man is it ever. Papers, Please for iPad is immaculately well-behaved. It consumes only the daintiest portions of memory and battery, and the controls are inarguably superior to the desktop edition's. Like Subset's mic-droppingly good port of FTL earlier this year, this iPad version of Papers, Please instantly claims the high perch as the definitive version of the game.
So, last chance to get off this review train if you want to just go discover Papers, Please for yourself. Anybody else? No?
It's Thursday at the East Grestin border checkpoint. Your son has been ill and needs another dose of medicine that cost as much as the heating bill will. You only managed to get the heating turned back on yesterday, and that was down to a bribe from a jittery Kolechian who didn't have a valid entry visa to immigrate here. Why they'd want to trade their shithole of a country for your shithole of a country is a mystery, but you have enough to worry about. If you don't process enough entries today, your son might have to just get better without medicine. Or your whole family will be cold again tonight.
An officer in epaulettes has just stepped out of a car inside the border and is walking towards your booth. Is it the secret police, investigating your extra-legal income? Is it one of your bosses at the Ministry, who's traced an illegal entry back to you? Maybe it's another terrorist attack. There's so many ways that something you did yesterday or the day before or last week might be coming back to haunt you -- something you did because it meant life or death for your family and you were desperate. Because you're always desperate. Because that's how it always is in Arstotzka.
If I try to explain Papers, Please by regurgitating a bunch of familiar game genres at you (puzzler, adventure, interactive fiction) I will both fail you and do a disservice to the game. It's a low-resolution pixel-art world of which you only ever see your claustrophobic little guard booth and it's immediate environs -- but Papers, Please builds a more engrossing world than any AAA Bioware RPG.
The core gameplay revolves around inspecting passports and associated travel papers -- creator Lucas Pope calls Papers, Please a "document thriller". As an inspector for the Ministry of Admission in the totalitarian state of Arstotzka, you are the filterer and interpreter of papers. Is this man's entry visa a forgery? Check the manual and peer carefully at the diplomatic seals. Does this woman have all of the necessary documents to prove that she has a job waiting for her across the border? Better fingerprint her to make sure she is who she claims to be.
Once you think you've got your job down, Pope puts his finger on the scales. Tooday you might have to assess newly-introduced permits. Tomorrow you will submit every visitor from a particular country to a full-body scan for weapons or contraband. Your job is truly the most mundane experience in gaming, but it's fraught with tension. Miss a few fakes and your pay gets docked, so when you go home to your family at the end of that day, you'll have forgo food or medicine or heat. Your pay packet is so meagre that it's difficult to ignore the bribes you're invariably offered -- sometimes by people as desperate as you are, sometimes by frightening insurgent groups.
You can concentrate on doing your job well and keeping within the lines, but will you be comfortable doing the banal work of Arstotzka's brutal autocratic regime? A guard will come and offer to share the bonus he gets for detaining people for questioning, encouraging you to become a wolf. You're doing it to feed his family and yours -- but does that excuse preying upon the pitiful souls queued up at the border?
Papers, Please never prints out a moral judgement the way modern RPGs do with Dark Side points or numerical reputation scores. The woman whose privacy you choose to respect might be hiding a suicide bomb that she explodes just inside the gate and kills your colleague. The bribe you turn down might have bought your son a birthday present. You're the one that has to live with what you decide.
If you really give Papers, Please the attention and suspension of disbelief it deserves, it's a harrowing experience that's objectively not fun. Even the occasional moments of comedy are entirely black here. This game is the best example I can give of the importance of games as a medium of art: Papers, Please is precision-engineered to encourage you to feel empathy. There's few films (or works of literature, or musical compositions) that slip you into the shoes of a man in an impossible situation as adroitly as Papers, Please does. You will do the banal work of an evil state. Or you will look the other way to aid a terrorist. You will do it because your wife and son have to eat.
Papers, Please was played on an iPad Air for this review.