The Confusing Chaos of Papers, Please

I am one of those people who stinks at seeing the little things in front of him. I focus on the big pictures, and if you want me to focus on the tiny details, then I need time to change my mindset. Basically, it takes a while for me to analyze details, and sometimes I still can’t see what’s right under my nose.

I’ll give you an example, whenever I go out, I have to memorize where I have parked and make mental notes of any landmarks nearby. Otherwise, I’ll never find the car!

So whenever I wanted to play Papers, Please as part of a backlog clearing challenge, I knew I was getting into a bit of trouble. You see, the game is a “dystopian document Thriller” (With a pretty epic Musical) where you play as a border agent in Arstotzka. The country is very heavy-handed, especially in terms of who they let in, and the neighboring countries aren’t that much better.

The other neighbors are ravaged by war, bombings, polio, spying, and economic failure. It’s your job to act as a gateway to let the right people in and keep the bad ones out.

But it’s not as simple as checking a few names and dates off, stamping passports, and calling it a day… you also have the Government of Arstotzka constantly changing the rules and requirements. Political turmoil in the neighboring countries causes more trouble each day for the border, and there are also characters with their own backstories to contend with.

These include a very positive smuggler and criminal mastermind, two lost lovers separated by war, a jerk commanding officer, a cool-headed security guard, and a shadowy group of rebels hoping to overthrow the government for their own means for you to interact with.

The First Few Days

Papers, Please opens with a small set of rules. There is data for every citizen that you have to collect and ensure is correct. If it is correct, then their passport is approved. If it isn’t, you must point out the discrepancy and then inform the person why before stamping deny.

For every person you stamp correctly, you earn money and that money pays the expenses of your four family members. Easy peasy… then it all goes downhill!

The Arstotzkan government pokes its noses into your rulebook and starts wracking up the tension and the number of things to deal with each day. When I played, I was having a hard enough time trying to get all my dates, names, and photos in order… and then terrorists from Kolechia attacked the checkpoint. Kolechia and Arstozka have just ended a rather nasty war, and now my work as an inspector gets even harder.

A Step Back

For those of you who have read my articles before, you all know that I am a very story focused gamer. To me, nothing but the story matters, and Papers Please has a very thrilling story.

Just the premise of being a border inspector gives the player great power. With just two stamps (and a ton of rules) I can decide who comes in and who leaves. The randomly generated people in the line came to me with stories about how and why they needed to get into the country, and all of them were important.

However, I saw almost none of them because of the time pressure, and I was so mesmerized by all the tiny details that I missed the bigger picture, I missed the story the game was trying to show me until it was too late.

The game has 20 different endings for the player to experience, but the top three that can happen based on all your choices in the game are these:

Stay Loyal to the Arstotzkan governmentAid the Rebel group in gaining entry to the countryFlee to neighboring Orbistan, either alone or with family.

Of course, I was too busy stamping passports and checking off forms to really care about alliances, and my choices all seemed to happen due to my own incompetence. I accidentally didn’t let a rebel operative in because I didn’t have time to crack the code a previous one had given me, but I also accidentally let several checkpoint guards die because I didn’t know how to access the tranquilizer gun in my locker.

Basically, the story events whizzed right past me because I was too busy trying to understand the complex rules that the government kept hammering me with! Then, by the time the story caught up with me, it was far too late for me to do anything.

A Hammer Blow to the Heart

The screen above shows your expenses and controls how you handle them with the money you have earned. Each family member can go hungry and go without heat for a certain number of days, after which they die. So with a bit of careful micromanagement of finances, you can go without food or heat for a few days if you really need the money.

I’d been scraping by with the funds I had, ignoring optional expenses like upgrades for my booth (That would have ironically made my job easier!) and other things. Aside from keeping my family members fed and the lights on, everything else didn’t matter.

Then my son got sick, right around the time I had chosen to flee the country using forged passports that cost around 25 credits each. Now, I’d been reacting to all the Rebel vs Government events pretty randomly, namely just depending on my choice during the spur of the moment.

I was too busy working and not spending enough time looking at the bigger picture, so when the option to flee came up, I figured that would be the right decision.

I’d done some good things for the Arstotzkan government, and had done some bad things for the government, so I figured that neither side would be completely happy with me when the endgame rolled around. Fleeing seemed to be the best option, so I began to prepare to leave.

Then my son died of his sickness.

All the credits I had poured into the escape plan didn’t leave enough for my son’s medicine, and I lost it. My son was dead, and I only had enough money for one other person to come with me. So I stole two Orbistan passports, gathered my credits, and then left with my wife. I left my mother in law and uncle behind, and we got into Orbistan.

That was that. The game ended.

Breaking all my Rules

Papers, Please did something that no game has ever done before. They made me value gameplay over story. I will make every bad decision possible to keep the people closest to me in games alive (See my article about ‘Pawns as People’ coming soon.) and telling a good story either through the game or through roleplay, is the most important thing to me.

But I was so focused on the game’s confusing chaos, and all the stuff I had to check, that I didn’t see the story until the end of the game, and then I was pushed into making more choices that spiraled out of control. Finally, the game ended, and I was left with an outcome I had no control over.

I’m going to play the story mode again, and probably take some serious notes after every single day to ensure I can catch all the details and not have to worry about money. Then maybe I can focus on the story and make some better choices, I might even get to control the ending this time.

Until then, all I can say is…