Papers, Please - Review

Author: Claudio Chianese
Date: 2021-02-01 19:22:17
The fall of the Berlin Wall is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. In front of those television images I understood, for the first time, that the world continued beyond my room and that I myself, like it or not, was part of human history. A feeling, I believe, that younger readers will associate with the September 11, 2001 attack. Why this amarcord? Because Papers, Please, an independent title to the bone resulting from the efforts of 3909 LLC, brought to mind those memories, along with scraps of Kafka and Orwell. Stuff of the good one, in short.

The premise is elementary: Arstotzka, an imaginary Soviet republic, has just signed an armistice with the equally imaginary Kolechia. The city of Grestin is divided between the two nations. The player is responsible for managing the border, regulating the flow of crowds of poor people who, for one reason or another, want to enter Arstotzka. Put like this, however, the title of 3909 could pass for a sort of management system. But no: Papers, Please is a game where you check passports. Date and place of issue, serial numbers, photographs, and then permits and counter-permits, identity cards, diplomatic visas, just like any employee of any customs in the world.

Okay, you say, and when do the aliens arrive? They don't come. Neither are zombies. We are also a long way from the glossy lives of the Sims. Just a badly paid and repetitive job. So what prevents us from relegating Papers, Please to the oblivion of unhappy concepts, right between the concrete mixer simulators and that German game in which you impersonate a longshoreman? The atmosphere, just the atmosphere. The routine tasks, the sad faces of immigrants, the omnipresent armed guards, the leaden uniformity of the interface and graphics, all contribute to creating a bubble of unreality, a feeling of estrangement that hits right in the pit of the stomach.

At the heart of Papers, Please is the story mode, that is a month of work activity. For the first few days it is right to take a look at the passport and put some stamps, a task as simple as it is repetitive. Over time, however, the regulations tend to multiply, until each migrant must submit up to four documents to be evaluated in the shortest possible time. Some will try to bribe you with vile money, others will tell, in a few lines of dialogue, their sad stories. It may happen that you order the arrest of a wanted person, or you will have to ponder the offers of a mysterious revolutionary group, or even suffer the oppression of hierarchical superiors. Whatever happens, at the end of the day you will have to balance your earnings, net of mistakes, with the maintenance of your family.

On balance, the narrative structure is extremely concise, elementary, direct: yet, this minimalist choice highlights the enormity of the themes that revolve around papers and stamps. One day, perhaps, a political refugee will show up with a forged document. Sending him back implies his death sentence, a voluntary oversight would be enough to save him: on the other hand, with those five credits you were planning to buy a medicine for your child. Why not order the arrest of the victim instead, so as to earn a small bonus? After all, he's just a stranger, a stranger ... Papers, Please is full of ethical dilemmas of the genre ready to emerge from the gameplay itself, credible and earthly situations, without anything heroic but with a lot of human. The great merit of 3909 is that of having built a title for which history is not a theatrical tinsel, but the architrave of the entire structure: even the continuous proliferation of laws and quibbles, which defines the level of difficulty, refers to incomprehensible bureaucracies of Kafka's tales and requires questioning the very foundations of the game structure. After all, what's the point of a typo on an asylum permit when emaciated faces betray hunger and despair and every day is good for a new terrorist attack?

Now, however, allow me to lower the intellectual level of the speech to say that, in my opinion, Papers, Please is a deadly bore. From a mechanical point of view, it is a question of repeating the same sequence of actions hundreds of times, with puzzle dynamics that have more to do with the Puzzle Week than with the contemporary video game. Of course, there are variables: fingerprints, scanners, even a basic and sporadic use of point-and-click weapons, but at the end of the day the story is always the same, that is a powerful migraine, largely caused by the interface more uncomfortable in living memory. Mind you, it's all intentional and helps to convey the aforementioned atmosphere: maybe I'm too rustic, but I still don't feel completely convinced that boredom can become an integral part of a playful experience.

Claudio Chianese it was often said that with a degree in literature he would end up stamping documents. Apparently, it was true.