You work the border of a fictional Soviet country in the '80s, deciding who gets in and who doesn't. As the game progresses, rules and regulations get more complex. Foreigners require ID verification. Everyone needs polio vaccines. Entrants from a certain district need to have their passports confiscated. It becomes ridiculously difficult.
Of course, it's not a simple numbers game. Someone doesn't have the right papers, but they're seeking political asylum and they say if they go back to their home country they'll be killed. An elderly woman has expired documents but she needs to find her husband before the border is closed permanently. You're the one who can change the course of these people's lives.
But it's not that easy. Your salary is based on the number of people you process, and if you make too many mistakes, your pay is docked. You also need to pay rent at your apartment and feed your family. Papers, Please presents moral dilemmas in a more sophisticated manner than the vast majority of games with so-called morality systems. In most games, "good" and "evil" are easily identifiable, and the "good" option is as equally viable and easy to obtain as the "evil" option. That doesn't work, though: when both options are presented as equal, almost everyone picks the "good" option.
In this game, there's no Morality Bar telling you how good or evil you are. The "good" option (letting someone through even if they don't have the arbitrary papers required) is much harder than the "evil" option (simply do your job and stop the person from entering the country). You wish you could help these people, but your son is sick and you need to buy his medication, too. Good and evil become more blurred, as it's all shades of gray.
Although Papers, Please takes place in a fake Eastern European nation, the parallels between this and modern U.S. immigration policy are pretty obvious. The message is clear: immigration is made unnecessarily complex to hinder the ability of the world's lower-class population to build futures for their families. But why does the United States, a symbol of freedom, have largely the same border policies as an oppressive totalitarian government?
Papers, Please has a retro pixel art style, but it's not superfluous like many of the popular throwback platformers we see today. It's presented like an old point-and-click game, with the outdated graphics that a game from an Eastern Bloc nation would have. In the context of the game's bleak outlook, the art style works beautifully. Some of the game's mechanics are not explained very clearly, but this fits with the arbitrary complexity of the authoritarian border regulations.
It's hard to compare Papers, Please to Gone Home, a title I reviewed fairly favorably a few days ago. Both are indie games with a riveting pathos, but they approach it in very different ways. Papers, Please arguably takes advantage of the medium more. It's much more of a "game" in the classical sense, while Gone Home is more of a virtual museum.
Papers, Please is surprisingly deep and subtle, in both its storytelling and its game mechanics. A concept that could've worked as a simple Flash browser game is fleshed out to a powerful statement about immigration reform. It's one of my favorite games of the year, available for $10 on Steam for both PC and Mac.