Papers, Please is an independent video game in which the player takes on the responsibilities of a border control guard for the fictional Communist nation of Arstotzka. The bulk of the game takes place in the immigration booth, where every day the qualifications and documentation people are required to have to enter the country become more and more complex every day. Between in-game days the player has to allocate the money they earn during the day between food, heat, occasionally medicine, and savings for their family. By all counts this game should be excruciatingly boring, and yet it has garnered fantastic reviews, achieving a Metacritic score of 85/100, a 9/10 from EuroGamer, and an 8.7/10 from IGN. Everybody I know who has played the game (myself included), and every person I’ve seen make videos on it has thoroughly enjoyed this game. So what’s so great about a video game about arguably one of the most boring jobs on the planet?
We often associate boredom with repetition, particularly excessive repetition of an unenjoyable task. Papers, Please is definitely a very repetitive game. The gameplay features expand a bit as you get further into the game, but all you can really do is review passports and other documentation, detain people, and perform full body scans. There is not much that is inherently particularly exciting about any of these features. That said, the fun of the game manifests itself partially in the difficulty curve. The game starts with one rule: only Arstotzkans with a valid passport may enter the country. The next day, that changes to be all foreigners with a valid passport. New rules and restrictions are layered onto the game at all the right moments to keep the old rule set from stagnating. A full game of only being able to let in Arstotzkans with valid passports would be repetitive and dull. However, the game increases the difficulty to the point where you have to not only check passports, but entry permits, work permits, citizen ID cards, and more, making sure every document is valid. The game quickly becomes anything but dull.
Another way the game keeps from being boring is the stakes it presents the player. All narrative text addresses the player directly as “you.” “Your son is sick,” “Your family is starving,” and “Your mother-in-law has died” are all messages that will be presented to you throughout the game if you do not get enough money to feed and heat your family. The game gives you a family and makes your personally responsible for their well-being, and then makes your pay dependent on how many people you let into the country with valid documentation. The first few days of that are easy enough, as it does not take much time to check the passports, so you can let lots of people through. It soon becomes difficult to maintain the balance of food and heat your family gets, for various reasons; it takes longer to review everything on all of the documents, and errors are more common, so you start getting fined if you mess up more than a few times. The game keeps you personally invested in your family’s well-being, so even if the game becomes frustrating in its difficulty (which it does), the excitement stays up because you have to keep your family alive.
The other aspect of Papers, Please that makes it entertaining is the story. There is not much of a narrative, but some loose plot elements develop over time. Early in the game, one man tries to enter the country without a passport, and after you deny him entry he continues to come back with either false or out of date documentation, so his constant presence is both humorous and worth continuing to play for. There is a more prominent narrative, though, in which members of a secret society slip you notes that you have to give to certain people. I have not played enough of the game to personally know how this plot develops fully, but I do know that it breaks the monotony when a man in a mask shows up without a passport and hands you a note with a mysterious symbol on it and walks back out the way he came in. Elements like this encourage the player to pay attention and engages them on a level beyond simply accepting and denying people passage into Arstotzka.