Eccentricity in The ‘Indie’stry: Breaking Down Papers, Please


Indie games are great, at times even unparalleled. Their rise can be translated as a nexus between the deterioration in the quality of AAA games and the tangible imitation culture spearheaded by an industry that is devoid of ingenuity, and the ingress of small teams or individual developers, who despite being in a highly competitive playing field have unequivocally proven themselves, victors. In a fight against a declining empire, or in this case empires, the revolutionaries or the bringers of change have played an enormous role in setting a standard that was forsaken long ago at the expense of transforming these empires into money-making machines. Their actions have led to the erosion of various ramifications of game design, leaving bleak, senseless and even deplorable worlds of arrant decadence. To call names, we have witnessed the gross degradation of the 2013 SimCity, that was shortly afterwards beaten black and blue by Colossal Order’s Cities: Skylines.

When the competition is big there are many to compete, but when the big competitors are fallible, a stronger small opponent replaces it.

To this day, originality in games has remained a major subject of debate. Whether the next Watch Dogs game will be any different or if the next Call of Duty will have anything new are audible questions amid a mass of enthusiasts who pine for a little change. Video games are becoming increasingly boring. A society which craves for thrill and seeks excitement has stepped into an era of decay where they are being force-fed recycled materials manufactured by an increasingly derivative industry. Force-fed because the market which is operating against the interests of the consumers is not providing likeable options or options that are any different, in turn creating an audience which lacks taste. As a result, people are only left with one rack to choose from, shelves filled with sham, conceptions of a sterile mind.


Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please is a tour de force in puzzle simulations. If you have come across the popular catchphrase “Honesty is the best policy”, you would know that the expression carries with it two sets of moral behaviours, one which is appreciated (tell the truth and you will be praised) and the other which is frowned upon by society (lie and you will be punished). There is hardly any honesty in Papers, Please, but it expects you to show both. Well, most of the time. In that sense, smokescreen tactics are often mixed with empathy to give the narrative a real and often humorous, and more often a perfidious direction. Somewhere down the line, you would find yourself making difficult decisions. Sometimes they will make you question your judgement, sometimes they will smack you right back and land you in trouble.



Pope’s vision of creating a puzzle simulator was posed with multiple challenges. Mainly, the idea for a narrative and whether it will proceed down one line or many. Papers Please, is set in a fictional dystopian country called Arstotzka. As an unnamed immigration inspector, your duty is to review documents and grant/ reject entry to immigrants. As you proceed through the game you will meet many people who will ask you for help or want to bribe their way in. At other times they are willing to pay you for small tasks like distributing little advertisement slips to engineers who are migrating. A little further in, you will meet a secretive group called the Ezic Order whose members will tempt you to join their side with the promises of eliminating corruption and a brighter future for the country. And even later on, a vengeful father will request you to let a man named Simon Wens through. Simon Wens, who the father alleged to have murdered his daughter, will also appear on the wanted criminals’ list. At this point you will have three choices: 1) Scare Simon Wens off by showing him the photograph of the woman he murdered (the photograph that the father gave you), 2) Detain him for criminal affiliations, 3) Confiscate his passport, let him pass, hand over the seized passport to the father and allow him to dispense justice. Three different courses of action lead to three different outcomes. One where Simon escapes and the father is left with no photograph of the only daughter he lost, another where Simon is swiftly detained and justice delivered legally and finally, the one where Simons is let through and the father is able to take vengeance. Decisions like these will test you from time to time, ask you whether you are a competent worker or a corrupt fool and remind you that there are consequences for every choice you make. In the menu, the levels will branch off based on your choices. So, at any given moment if you feel like you don’t want to go a certain direction, you can always go back and make a different set of choices.


Simulation games are fairly simplistic. At least for an avid player, these games are a cinch. But we can all agree that it normally comes down to experience.
There are sundry simulation games out there: city builders, RTS/TBS titles, life simulators, flight simulators, hospital simulators. The subgenres have become non-acquirable assets, much like the popular FPS or TPS genres. No one can hold patents over genres, for if that were the case then Valve or id Software would be the only ones making FPS shooters. In the same manner, Total War Studios would be making TBS/RTS titles and CD Projekt Red or Bethesda would be the only ones producing RPGs. What is so unique about Papers, Please is that it cannot be assigned any particular subgenre. Many call it a puzzle game but others refer to it as a management simulator. It is something that is grossly oversimplified but not enough vitiate it. In individuality, it is so unconventional that to call it a management simulator or a puzzle game would mean insultingly downplaying its uniqueness, for paring it with others that are barely the same would do it no justice.

Papers Please involves a basic composition of clicks and drag and drops. The keyboard is hardly ever needed except for shortcuts which can be bought by upgrading your work desk. Like Tab is used for pulling open the stamps, Spacebar for inspection mode and so on. The primary task is to scrutinize documents and verify its contents. Allowing people with original contents to pass and detaining those with counterfeit documents. Inspection mode is triggered to highlight two items in the work area. When there is non-conformation from the immigrant’s side or a discrepancy, this mode can be activated to highlight the same in turn, triggering an interrogation sequence. Sometimes immigrants who have not given out required documents will be roused by this and they will present them soon after. Sometimes, they will say ridiculous things like, “I didn’t know I needed that,” or, “What is a passport?” At which point you would have to deny them entry, failing which a violation will be marked. Numerous such violations on different grounds will continue to stack up as you make more and more mistakes and after a point, any such mistake would incur fines. Temporary VISA Slips will automatically generate if the immigrant is missing a passport. These can only be used to deny entry. The two different kinds of stamps are the green APPROVED and the red DENIED. Drag a passport under a stamp to label it. Deny people who do not have proper documents and permit entry to those who are legit. Over time, the game will give you better options like detaining miscreants for having criminal affiliations, for appearing on the daily most wanted lists, for carrying counterfeit documents, possession of drugs and contraband.

Sounds fairly simple, right? Don’t worry, there’s a catch. With each passing day, the number of documents and the contents to scrutinise will increase. People with false identities will attempt to gain entry under the pretence of aliases. Fingerprint slips can then be used to verify authenticity. One empty slip is passed on to the immigrant (which he returns after having filled them with his impressions) and another one is automatically generated. If the person’s face does not match the photograph in the documents, the same method is to be applied. Sometimes, the immigrants will claim to have had plastic surgery. Seldom will these claims be true. Very soon, your table will be piling up with documents. Passport, identity card, diplomatic authorisation, entry permit and identity supplement. The final two will later be replaced by an access permit which integrates the contents of both. With the outbreak of polio, every migrant has to carry certificates of vaccination and the report must prescribe a recent dose of the polio vaccine. If the date is years off or if the immigrant has not been inoculated with the polio vaccine, he is not eligible to enter Arstotzka. Different categories of people will have to carry different documents. Arstotzkan citizens will need a valid ID proof and a passport, foreigners must have every single document needed. Asylum seekers only need a passport and a grant of asylum. A discrepancy in height will be resolved by the same fingerprint formulae, in weight, however, the immigrant will be made to strip and photographs will be taken. Any contraband detected must be highlighted against the particular norm in the rule book lest a penalty is imposed for wrongful entry.

As terrorists and separatists will mercilessly gun down and bomb the border, you will be given clearance to use tranquillizers to control them. Later on, the Ezic will provide you with an actual rifle to eliminate targets that they find a threat. You may choose to comply shall you see it fit.


Your salary depends on how many people you let through the border. The first three M.O.A. Citations generated to notify the player of violations (mistakes they have made/ discrepancies they have overlooked) are general warnings, any further than that and fines will be imposed on the player. So, if you let one person through without messing up, you will earn $5. For ten people it will be $50. Detainment also gives you a bonus sum. For every two people you detain, you earn an extra $5. So, instead of sending people away (which earns you no money) for carrying counterfeit documents, contraband or for having criminal affiliations, detainment is a better option because the money you are making at this point will come in handy for a number of purposes. Either for escaping to Obristan, for which you would need a lot of money to make counterfeit documents, for upgrading the inspector’s booth or for moving into a better class apartment. The only thing I found which could have been better is the different apartment classes. Moving from one class to the next only has a minimal difference. To elaborate on that, a class- 7 apartment has a rent margin of $30 and an additional $10 for heat (I will explain the purpose of this feature later) which is no different from a class- 6 apartment which costs $35 per day with an added $5 for heat. The only good side of that is an achievement, for which you’d have to move to a class- 5 apartment but it will put enormous weight on your finances as the rent also goes up. So if you are not playing on easy mode for that free $20, you’d have to be really quick, and let as many people in as you can without making any substantial error. Even so, chances are you would end up with a huge deficit at the end of the day.

The things that you would be spending your money on most of the time is your family. That’s the chief source of your expenditure. Your family uses up food and heat and if anyone of these are neglected they will either become sick or hungry. For which you’d have to spend more on medicine. If the health of your family is neglected, they will turn dead and it will be game over. Doing people favour will earn you extra money. Ezic will provide you with loads of cash and you can choose to keep it or burn it. Sometimes, a burgeoning family treasury attracts too much attention, for which if you do get caught, the money you received will be confiscated by the government and an investigation against you will be launched. At some point, you will be given opportunities to provide shelter to your kins, which will become quite a burden on your income. Rare events like your son’s birthday would mean you have to buy him a gift.


The narrative is flexible. Every time a major decision is made, the story moves in a pre-programmed route. In that sense, an ethic driven quest is less likely to have a bearing on the narrative, its primary motive being to test whether a player is loyal towards an oppressive regime or relies on bribes as an additional mode of income. It also tests one’s view of life: whether the player is kind-hearted, warm and empathetic, one who is willing to break a few rules to help others or loyal, law-abiding and a strict follower of state norms, one who will never let emotions get in the way of duty.

There are several endings. The Ezic path or the Loyalist path are just a few of them. If you’re afraid you’ve messed up before and are afraid that you will be charged with high treason during your audit, the game provides you with an easy way out. Move to Obristan, either alone, or with your family. For that, you would need to confiscate Obristani passports and have a large amount of cash in reserve. Each illicit confiscation will incur a fine including additional charges for producing counterfeit passports. This option must be taken if you have compromised the loyalist path by providing any help to the Ezic order but the group has failed to make any substantial gain in toppling the corrupt government. Of course, it will be your fault because at some point you chose to disobey the Ezic agents which ultimately led to their demise. But the one or two agents you let through previously hoping for a change will testify against you which will lead to your indictment. The game punishes you for not sticking to an option shall you decide to conveniently withdraw yourself, but it also leaves ample space to move to a different ending. In other words, freedom is not abundantly bestowed upon you but at the same time, the game tries its level best to acquit you from any mistake that you’ve made.


The notion which prevails in the present circa is that anything that looks good must be good. That a game must look realistic, only then can it be placed on the highest tier. But there is this beautiful idiom that disputes this concept, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Innovation and creativity cannot always be defined by beauty since the principles determining that are generally a combination of various elements. Papers, Please’s 2D pixel art is extremely creative and the animations methodically enter one section to the next seamlessly. There are two primary screens. The upper screen is the world screen which animates the checkpoint and its surrounding. There are guards in blue and hoards of people in black will line up on the other side. Sometimes, special characters in green or red will also appear. The bottom screen is essentially made up of two parts: The one on the right is the inspection bench and the part which is adjacent to it shows the character coming into the booth. Under it, a tiny bench where the immigrant will slide their documents. When a person on the upper screen enters the booth the face of the person forthwith appears on the bottom left screen. He/she slides in the documents which appear small and closed, but once they are dragged on to the inspection desk on the bottom right, the unopened documents appear in their full form with all the necessary information within it. To explain the beauty of that, let me take you to the first level. In the beginning, when the game tells you to deny access to all foreigners you would not even need to drag a passport on to the inspection bench to be able to tell which one you need to mark green. As it is passed onto the smaller desk on the left-hand side, the closed passport’s top cover will hold a symbol of the country. Arstotzkan passports are identified by the eagle insignia. So the moment you see that an Arstotzkan passport has been slid on to the desk, you can just yank it into the inspection desk, pull out the stamp, slap it and give it back. That way, it saves a lot of time. But this is practically useful only for the first day as the inspection mode is not introduced until the second day. But this is a genius mode of communication where an ordinary symbol feeds you a piece of information before you even get an opportunity to formally consider it.


From concept to gameplay, Papers, Please is a unique experience crammed with humour and seriousness. It represents the pain of separation and human endeavour in an oppressive society which broadcasts the dark side of border policies in its attempts to weigh the cost of life against that of laws that separate people. Putting you in difficult situations is its way of asking you who you truly are. In terms of individuality, it is something entirely new. Something, that has inspired others of its kind like the Brexit game Not Tonight. For a concept that has originated from frequent international travels, it paints a not-so-good picture of an imperfect world which is no different from ours but certainly worse than it is.

Ishan Dey
Ishan Dey
Into odd underrated video games.


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