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iOS game of the week: Papers, Please is the perfect game about an imperfect world to play on your iPhone

Photo of Papers, Please on an iPhone screen.
(Image credit: Lucas Pope)

It’s not every month that a critically acclaimed console or PC indie title gets ported to the iPhone, but it’s sure felt like that a lot lately. 

Following last month’s (free-ish) release of Into the Breach comes Lucas Pope’s Papers, Please, the passport checking simulator that broke ground back in 2013 for being perhaps one of the most innovative games of the decade. While it’s lightyears away from a comparison to the time-traveling chess-like mecha RTS — the similarities start and end at indie darling —  Papers, Please is a welcome addition to the legacy library of the iPhone.

Papers, Please is an engaging, somber moral tale of border crossing baked in detective work, and it hits much harder this year as the game’s fictional Eastern Bloc-like country of Arstotzka parallels the tension and anger of the current Russo-Ukrainian War. And while It’s hard to say if Papers, Please will stand as a relevant game in another nine years, we all know that fascism isn’t going away any time soon. For that reason, this week’s iOS game of the week feels like the unofficial best iOS game of the decade.

Your papers, please

For the unfamiliar, Papers, Please is a simulation game in which you take on the role of an immigration officer working a border checkpoint between two fictional countries, Arstotzka and Kolechia. The year is 1982, and the nations have just ended a six-year-long war, though political tension remains high.

The game takes place over the course of one month. Every day, you wake up and walk out of your state-provided apartment to a matchbox-sized work booth, inspecting passports and documents, as security measures fluctuate depending on the previous day’s events. One day, you could slip up and let a foreigner in who turns out to be a wanted criminal; the next, a suicide bomber rushes the checkpoint and kills a guard. You never know what to expect. The only constant is your sole responsibility of checking the documents of anybody who wants to cross the border. You must protect and uphold the well-being of the authoritarian Arstotzka at all costs.

This week’s iOS game of the week feels like the unofficial iOS game of the decade.

Of course, Papers, Please isn’t as simple as checking one or two documents, though the action of inspecting is actually something you’ll need and want to do as meticulously as possible. You’re thankful for your state-provided job, and you’ve got a sick family at home you need to provide heat, rent, food, and medicine for, or else you'll be risking death. You have every reason to work. But even if you didn’t, your country is forcing you.

However, the game gives you plenty of moral choices to make, and each can affect the outcome of how you view Papers, Please. For instance, a foreigner may beg you at the border that they need to see a doctor and tend to their sick child, as Arstotzka has better healthcare than their home country. Do you give their passport a stamp of approval and risk a work citation, potentially docking your paycheck, or do you reject them and stick to your duty? Your moral choices comes into play every workday.

This is a game as much about morals as it is about rules, and your desk will quickly pile up with more papers to sift through as restrictions at the border crossing tighten. A day can last anywhere between 5–20 minutes, depending on how slow you may be inspecting each document and crossreferencing it with your rulebook and map. The game has 20 endings in total.

Border patrol, but on a smaller screen

iPhone screenshots of Lucas Pope's Papers, Please.

(Image credit: Future / Kevin Cortez)

Papers, Please was released on the iPad in 2014, but that screen is much bigger than the iPhone’s. For this port, Lucas Pope had to play with the idea of a more compact arrangement for players to properly sift through their documents. There’s a carousel at the bottom of the screen that you can swipe through to read over rules and a foreigner’s documents. The vertical screen presentation gives a much tighter feel to the immigration booth, which gives the game a more claustrophobic feeling. In my opinion, this only strengthens the game even more. 

Now, to be clear, I never played Papers, Please prior to its iPhone release. I had heard a lot of uproar about the title, but I’m not ashamed to admit that my digitally-warped mush brain somehow conflated this title with two other 2013 indie games, Gone Home and Don’t Starve. (Believe me, I’m stupid.) But man, I really wasn’t expecting to have such a good time playing Papers, Please.

This game plays like an engaging book, though a bleak one. It’s an interactive narrative, sure, but it’s much more hands-on. The gamification of passport checking doesn’t sound fun — excuse the pun — on paper, and I’d argue that it isn’t. It’s a tedious task and requires some memorization, quick fingers, and intense scrutiny. But it has a chokehold on me.

I get a slight rush when I see how many people I can pass through the border checkpoint in a single day. As soon as I complete a workday, I immediately repeat that same day again to see if I can get a different outcome. I’ve even spent time trying to memorize the game’s ruleset before it piles on even more to my desk.

At the risk of referencing a much memed about deceased streaming service, I’m playing this game as Quibi intended me to view its content: in quick bits. I usually play a single in-game workday in Papers, Please between breaks at my actual job or just before bed. It’s the easy pick-up-and-play kind of game that I adore on the iPhone, where I’m able to dedicate a chunk of my time to it over watching Instagram stories or periodically checking emails. As far as pacing and accessibility are concerned, Papers, Please is the perfect iPhone game.

A dystopian document thriller

Title screen to the video game Papers, Please.

(Image credit: Lucas Pope)

It goes without saying, but Papers, Please is an essential video game that feels at home on the iPhone. Do what you must to grab it for your mobile device. Owners of the iPad version of the game are able to download the iPhone port for free via the App Store, while newcomers can nab the dystopian document thriller for $4.99.

Regardless if you've played the title or not, it's also worth checking out Lucas Pope's blog to read about his journey porting the title to mobile devices. It's an interesting look into Pope's developing process, and he addresses several issues he came across while making this miniature version of the game.

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Papers, Please

Assume the role of an immigration officer at a border post and check the documentation of anyone who crosses, in the name of your country's homeland security.

Download from: App Store (opens in new tab)

Kevin Cortez is a culture and product journalist with over nine years of experience. He was most recently the style editor for a leading product-recommendation site and previously covered the music and podcasting industries at Mass Appeal and The A.V. Club. He has also written for Leafly, Input, Vulture and Genius.