Dystopia is a fun word, and an even more fun literary genre. Some of the greatest written works exist within dystopia, from Orwells grim, hopeless 1984 and Huxleys eugenics-driven Brave New World to the modern capitalism nightmare of Barrys Jennifer Government and the recently filmed excess-and-dominance-driven Hunger Games. Dystopia stories are a great way to expand a social issue so broadly that you can see the filth in its grey, porous surface; video gaming has been no stranger to the dystopic story, featuring titles like Crackdown, Mirror's Edge and Remember Me.
Recently, a title made its way to the forefront of the indie gaming circles, putting players right in the shoes of a citizen, complicit in the enforcement of his nations dictatorial ways. Papers Please, is a self-billed dystopian document thriller, wherein players assume the role of an Arstotzkan immigration inspector, taking control of a re-opened checkpoint. Players will inspect the documents of people, both foreign and local, who want to pass into Arstotzka. They will check to ensure that the documents are valid, checking things like the expiration date, the gender of the person holding the papers and so on and so forth, and decide fates via a denied stamp or an approved stamp.
Visually, the title emulates older VGA games, utilizing a limited palette and deliberately out-dated graphics to put players in the mindset of being under-prepared for the task at hand. The animation within the game is surprisingly smooth, and depicts events well. The GUI can be somewhat difficult to read, and it is easy to miss simple things as the game progresses into more difficult scenarios.
Audibly, the title is simple, again utilizing the outdated aesthetic to hit players with simple chiptune-style music. 'Voices' employ the same nonsense syllables that games like The Sims and Animal Crossing to give the sense of speech without recording any actual voice over work. Other sound effects are surprisingly accurate, lending the title a sense of confusion and inconsistency, heightening the key element a primary character must have to exist within a dystopia; the sense that something is wrong.
Gameplay, well, fairly simple. The interface consists of a counter, for players to spread paperwork out on for examination, a view of the counter to see the citizen trying to enter the country, and a view of the checkpoint itself. As the title progresses, these go from simple decoration to elements of the game itself. The title plays initially as a simple puzzle game, tasking players with seeking inconsistency in the paper work. Utilizing a 'discrepancy' button, players can highlight the things that do not match, prompting interrogation. Once players have reviewed everything to their satisfaction, a stamp bar slides out with two options: denied or accepted. If the player chooses correctly, gameplay continues unhindered; errors are punished with two warnings, followed by increasing fines.
Once a day is over, it is time to pay the bills. Despite the socialist trappings, bills are still an issue. Players must pay for rent, food, heat and occasionally medicine. All bills are optional (aside from the rent), but all have consequences for non-payment; the player also has a family to care for, and they can die from starvation or disease. Little factoids about your family help to humanize what are essentially four status bubbles at the end of every day.
Overall, Papers Please, despite being a brain-stretching puzzle game, hosts a deep story told through a little window. It is absolutely worth the $9.99 asking price, available on steam. A 'beta' version is available on dukope.com for free, though it is incomplete.