It’s been a time-honored classic which has won awards, generated memes, and spawned dozens of deep YouTube analysis videos. And I didn’t get around to playing it until recently. Hey, I’m busy, OK? But after having it wish-listed for a while on Steam, where it’s currently yours for the low price of $9.99, Papers, Please finally rose to the top of my “to play” queue. So what about this game, and does it live up to the hype?
I’ll have to go with a definitive yes! I’ve mentioned before when raving about games like Cultist Simulator that I love daring, original ideas in gaming. I’ll content myself with a stream of first-person shooters and dungeon-crawlers in between, but the games I really look forward to exploring are the ones that test the very idea of what a video game even is. Papers, Please is a job simulator, where your job is to be a stamp-pad jockey at a border crossing. It’s your job to approve or deny people trying to get into your country. And you never had so much fun being a bureaucrat in your life!
Let’s get some basic facts out of the way. We’ll do a spoiler-free guide here; complete walk-throughs of this game are also easily found.
Getting to Know Papers, Please
I’ve seen reviewers stumble around a lot regarding the game’s nature, so I’ll clear this up first. All of the countries in the game are fictional. They are modeled after late-20th-century Soviet Eastern Block countries. Being of Eastern European heritage myself, I can say that the Balkanized landscape is accurate. As in real life, Arstotzka and its neighbors are all a political muddle of half-Communist ex-Soviet countries with little to their name but landlocked borders and a military budget that outweighs domestic spending.
So even if Arstotska and its neighborhood is fictional, its a very spot-on political parody of life under countries where Communism and Fascism co-exist a little too close for comfort.
I did a quick video tutorial using “endurance mode” from the extended play options (unlocked after you complete the game with the clearest possible ending. Browse this to get the hang of the interface if you’re a visual learner!
…and check out the rest of our guide for the nitty-gritty details.
Now for general strategy:
The game is set up so that it is very difficult, almost technically impossible, to play by the rules. If you vow to be a straight-A student and play Arstotska’s rules by the book, you will eventually find that either your job has grown too difficult to complete without making a mistake, or that you are surrounded by corruption even within the chain of command directly over you. You will find yourself in Catch-22 situations where no decision leads to victory.
On the other hand, if you start to adapt to the sleazy political climate and quietly justify bending the rules in your favor, you will fit in more easily with the game’s universe. But then you run the risk of getting caught by your superiors if you get too sloppy. Your morals will be tested in every direction. All around you are conspiracies, terrorist plots, human trafficking rings, drug cartels, and petty bureaucrats with a chip on their shoulder.
The best piece of strategy advice I can offer is that this game is very, very good at tricking you! You will approve somebody after double-checking their paper-work three times, scrutinizing every bloody flyspeck, convinced that this time you couldn’t possibly miss anything, only to be written up for that one detail you missed. Here’s some examples of “gotcha” entry candidates:
Mis-gendered entrants: Candidates whose appearance doesn’t match the M/F gender on their paperwork. Made more difficult by the pixelated graphics, which makes gender hard to assess visually.
Misspelled names: Even being off by one letter is a red flag!
Mismatched serial numbers: Passports, entry permits, and other paperwork carry a string of alphanumeric digits. Again, they can mis-match by one character.
Expiration dates: Watch the calendar and make sure someone’s ID isn’t expired. Work passes and entry tickets also have expiration dates.
Metrics: Candidates stand on a scale in front of a height gauge. If they weigh more than what their ID shows, they’re likely smuggling a bomb, weapon, or contraband.
Forged paperwork: You will have to check stamps and seals, points of origin against a list of approved passport-issuing cities, doctored photos, and more.
Forgetful candidates: People who forget to pass you one piece of paperwork until you remind them. These may be red herrings, who are otherwise perfectly cleared for entry.
People who don’t look like their passports: They may respond with a comment like “the years have not been kind,” and when you fingerprint them, they do match their ID. Another red herring.
You might think, “Well I’ll just deny anybody when in doubt.” No, also wrong! You get a citation for denying someone access without good reason as well as for admitting someone in error. This game throws minute details in your face, demands you get everything perfect, and has no concept of “playing fair.”
You do have tools to conduct your own investigation of a candidate’s story. Day by day, your booth will be upgraded with new tools. Eventually you can interrogate, search, fingerprint, and even detain candidates. Even the conversation is printed out in a transcript which you can use to highlight discrepancies, such as their purpose and length of time in visiting. You even get a gun eventually, and yes, Chekhov, are expected to use it.
One final word: You are only supposed to check for rules that are actually broken at that point in the game. The game progresses through a month of time, with new rules being added. On day one, your orders are simply “accept citizens, deny foreigners.” Later on as more rules are added, you have to check more stuff. But at no point will the game throw a discrepancy at you that you have not been equipped to examine and apply a rule.
Papers, Please Game Mechanics
Papers, Please automatically saves in save slots by the day. This is one aspect where the game shows mercy, because you can always delete the most recent day’s play and have that day over again, continuing on from there.
There are scripted events, terrorist attacks in particular, which are unavoidable. Some candidates are scripted while the rest are procedurally generated, so it’s never the same game twice.
You’re not just looking out for number one; you have a whole family to support. Being thrifty and switching between food and heat on alternate days helps budget the money without doing any harm. If you family dies off or you go broke, you lose. Switching on “easy mode” just gives you a $20 bonus per day while affecting nothing else. Over time, you may find other income streams besides just your paycheck.
For your base pay, you get paid a commission for every candidate you correctly process, regardless of their outcome. On day one, your job is the easiest it will ever be, so it’s worth processing the passports as fast as you humanly can. This helps you build up a balance against later days when the going is much tougher. The clock is ticking from the moment you summon the first candidate. When the day’s over, that’s the end of your paid time.
However, your clock does not start until you first click the speaker (“next!”) to summon candidates. When you first get into your booth for the day, take as much time as you need to read through new rules, read the newsletter, or scrutinize any leftover items you have from the previous day.
Your in-game manual is the “Ministry of Admission Rules & Regulation,” a handy tool that you will have to use throughout the game. I find it best to keep it open on the desktop at all times. You will need to turn to its pages for reference, as it expands daily when new regulations are handed down. In addition, it’s your chief tool for launching interrogations, from which you might pursue courses of investigation or detention.
To indicate any discrepancy, click the two items you are comparing while the inspection mode (little red “!” in the bottom right corner) is active. Try this with anything: Highlight the rule in the book requiring a document and the empty counter where the document should be. The person standing before you and the height marked on their documents. The seal on their paperwork and the seals shown in your rule book. When you do this right and it detects a discrepancy, it will trigger a dialog to sprout from the “interrogate” speaker at the center of your counter.
You can also pause the game. Some players suggest taking a screenshot first, pausing the game, viewing the docs by screenshot, then unpausing it to take whatever action you decide next. This might be considered mild cheating, or you could call it an accessibility aid for those with limited ability to process large amounts of visual detail in a tiny amount of time.
On any day, you may receive two citations which are just warnings, without consequence. After that, they start assessing you for a 5 credit fine each. You might use this mechanic as either a buffer against mistakes, or a bit of leeway when you want to make a decision that breaks the rules. However, cumulative citations over time do affect other factors in the game.
In addition to candidates, other characters will visit your booth. This includes other Arstotzka federal employees, characters with an agenda besides seeking admission, and even the occasional visitor who’s just there to deliver some vague threat and saunter off. Most of these are involved in long-term subplots within the game’s progress.
There are at least 20 different endings for the game, all of them affected by choices you make at various points. The one way to unlock “endless mode” is to play through near-perfectly and always placing Arstotzka’s best interests over any other. This will garner you a code which you can punch in to endless mode, a stream of procedurally generated candidates forever. You can consider trying for the other endings as replay value.
Papers, Please is Much Deeper Than You’d Expect!
For a humble employment simulator, this game does a great job at advancing a narrative woven into its premise. You eventually end up with a dramatic story with some humor elements along the way. Papers, Please could even be considered interactive fiction, perhaps a strong influence on that genre. It really does evoke the flavor and atmosphere of Franz Kafka, with a pinch of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil added for spice.
At the same time, Papers, Please has a timeless sense to it. The graphics levels will remind you of early DOS, while the topic of the game could not be more relevant to today’s headlines. There’s even a disease outbreak at one point which requires vaccination passports. As long as there are wars, geopolitics, borders, and people trying to navigate between them all, there will always be border guards.