Currently playing Papers Please, an indie game that puts you in the seat of a border inspector in a fictional communist nation in 1982. Your job is to read through the documents of every person attempting entry, and only let them through if everything appears to be in order. So that means checking a bunch of factors like, do they match their passport photo, is the issuing city valid, is their work permit is still valid, is the passport number written on the permit correct, and so on.

Jorji keeps showing up without valid documents but is very cheerful and persistent, and the nearest thing to light relief here.

Jorji keeps showing up without valid documents but is very cheerful and persistent. He’s pretty much the nearest thing to light relief here.

Every entrant correctly processed gives you 5 credits towards your pay. For each one you get wrong (declining a valid application, or allowing a false one) a citation is issued, and the more of these you get in a day, the heftier a fine you have to pay. There’s also a time limit for each day, so you can’t dawdle when looking through the papers. You have to work through them as quickly and accurately as possible. (note, the game instantly tells you if you processed an entrant wrongly, which is rather implausible, but I think a merciful feature. It would be pretty harsh if you didn’t know how well the day was going until afterwards). At the end of every day you have bills to pay, rent, food and heat. Too many screwups mean your funds fall short and you have to start choosing between these, and your family will start becoming ill. If they all die, game over.

At first your job isn’t too difficult, but as the game draws on the entry rules change every day, and become progressively more complicated. Foreign workers start needing work passes as well as permits. Entrants from certain countries have to be searched. All entrants require valid polio vaccines. It means more pieces of paper to look through, and more time spent on functions like taking photographs. You really start to feel the pressure after a while. If you take too long you lose money, but if you start making mistakes in your hurry to get applicants through, you also lose money.

Most applicants appear to be randomly generated, but there are a few scripted persons along the way with unusual circumstances. A man shows up who’s papers are in order, but when his wife follows she’s missing something. Do you have a heart and wave her through, and accept a penalty? Easy if you’re having a good day and can take the hit, harder if you’ve already had several citations hanging over you. Then, later on, there’s the matter of a rebel movement, and a choice as to whether or not you want to help them out…

It’s a great insight into the life of a in a stressful, demanding job amidst a nightmare of bureaucracy, with little margin for error. When you get the chance to help someone, or strike back at an authoritarian regime, do you take it, or is your priority to just try and keep your family fed and safe? Between the pressure and daily grind of flicking through a bunch of work permits, it’s all a bit grim and I’m living in dread of the clatter of the printer spitting out a citation. Then again little moments of kindness or seeing your savings in decent shape, after a day of successful and smooth processing, lift the spirits. Really apart from the challenge of the job of border guard (something pretty unconventional om gaming), this game is worth playing for the themes it explores. You’re prompted to reflect on what life might have been like for those living under an oppressive, authoritarian regime. It also illustrates how being good and being lawful can sometimes clash – should an individual follow their conscience, or uphold the stability of society?

I should also mention, since we are meant to be primarily an Olde Games site, the visuals are very 1989 EGA in style. The stark greys suit the east-European communism theme perfectly. And the whole game fits into 40MB, which by modern standards is basically nothing.