Papers, Please is a brilliant retro-style simulation of working as a border control agent in the mythical cold war soviet republic of Arstotzka. I say simulation, because it is definitely more that than game. Some of what "Papers, Please" simulates is the pure drudgery of having a job where all day long you verify passports photos and entry cards, check for expired dates and generally make sure people are who they say they are. If you do all that you'll earn a few ruples per day and maybe prevent your family from starving, shivvering or dieing. But you'll have to be pretty sharp about it.
Clearly, author Lukas Pope has put a lot of thought into creating a balance between tension and tedium in this simulation. People's lives hang in the balance and there's a growing background story of corruption and underground scheming. But I think there is perhaps a bit too much drudgery and it would be nice if there was somehow a way to put a bit more gamesmanship into it, or at least a few concessions to enabling the player to feel more of the tension. A better soundtrack could help convey the need for speed, the tension of incorrect decisions, etc. As an illustration, I can still recall the sad sack theme in SimCity when I was making bad decisions. That helped set a mood that was quite important to conveying how you were doing over and above any of the regular stats.
Maybe I'm just not that good as a border control agent, but I could not seem to keep my job long enough to get to the heart of the story underlying the simulation. There's some kind of shady underground organization and I had a couple of interactions in that area, but if it means starting all over again to replay the same scenarios just to try to make slightly better decisions, that's a lot to ask.
If Lukas Pope considers an iPad version or an update, I hope he'll also think about other ways to better surface the story elements, have more random replay or otherwise consider the option of an "easy" mode. "Papers, Please" has the potential to be as engaging as the original versions of SimCity, but for now it falls shy of that mark.
Nonetheless, for a mere $10, "Papers, Please" is still worthwhile, and I hope this will encourage more experimentation around the fringes of gaming. The artwork is a beautiful homage to classic '80s VGA style games with their weird washed out palate and chunky graphics, the theme song is fantastic and the game exudes indie charm. "Papers, Please" is available for Mac and Windows directly from the publisher, on Gog.com and via Steam.
Glory to Arstotzka!