7 mobile games like “Papers, Please”
- Spoiler: this was a difficult list to collate, mainly because games akin to Papers, Please - thoughtful, nuanced and above all long experiences - aren’t usually what gets popular on the mobile platform.
- We’ve brought together seven games that we feel either follow the same themes as Papers, Please or have a similar focus on story, nuance and immersion.
As far as depressing post-Soviet bureaucracy simulators go, “Papers, Please” is probably one of the best. Not that it’s a particularly populous category at least. It's a dreary, depressing, dark and weirdly engaging game that can leave you second-guessing yourself no matter how confident or reckless of a player you might be.
But what kind of games similar to Papers, Please can you play on mobile that evoke the same sort of feelings?
What is Papers, Please?If you’re not familiar, Papers, Please puts you in the shoes of a border crossing official in the newly independent post-Soviet (although the game is set in a purely fictional universe) state of Arstotzka. You sit in your booth in the middle of the border and are tasked with checking each entrant’s papers and deciding whether or not to approve their entry.
Simple, right? Wrong. While you’re initially just asked to check for the right stamp or date, quickly it accelerates into multiple boxes to tick and hard questions to ask. Some people you can easily dismiss as chancing their arm, but others offer heart-wrenching stories or other reasons to be let through. But you never know what someone’s true reason for coming to Arstotzka might be…
Papers, Please has been the worthy recipient of many awards and stands as one of the most distinct examples of indie games ever to hit the market. The bleak and oppressive atmosphere coupled with an exploration of the dehumanising nature of bureaucracy, and some genuinely engaging gameplay as you battle the clock in order to hit your quotas, does a great job of forming a pretty chilling narrative without making you perform comically evil acts.
After all, this may not be Spec Ops: The Line, but you're still making potential life-or-death decisions for those crossing the Arstotzkan border based on when your shift ends. But when the consequences could lead to your family literally freezing to death or other possible terrible endings, the line between good and evil blurs into murky shades of grey.
Yes, it’s a very heavy game. And now you can carry it in your pocket! But maybe you’ve already rinsed Papers, Please for all it’s worth, and now you’re eager for more depressing, time-constrained experiences to chill your heart. If you’re that kind of grim individual, then this list is for you!
Now, in all fairness, we should state first and foremost that while 80 Days is a story-based, choice-based and fairly nuanced game, we’re already breaking our rule on action. But this game, based on Jules Verne’s famous novel "Around the World in Eighty Days", has just as much appeal, variety and routes to uncover as anything Papers, Please can provide.
80 Days puts players in a steampunk world inspired by the classic novel, tasking you with making the titular round-the-world journey in under eighty in-game days. To do so, you’ll have to acquire various modes of transport, decide what routes to take and how to do so, as well as complete various story beats along the way. There's everything from a polar expedition to solving a murder in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, all the while keeping an eye on the clock as it ticks down to zero.
There are certain similarities gameplay-wise to Papers, Please, with a minimalist design where players interact with the world through abstracted menus and text conversations. However, just like Papers, Please, the game is deceptively deep, with a strange steampunk world to slowly piece together the nature of. You'll also be equally as likely to cause horrible consequences for those in your path as much as you may be able to help them.
Just like how Papers, Please tasks players with ensuring that they are able to both stay on the good side of the administration of Arstotzka and take care of their family, the ticking clock of 80 Days also ensures that despite the often slow gameplay, there is always a sword of Damocles hanging over their head. The replayability and different routes one can take also ensure there’s always something new to find and do on your global journey.
Without a doubt, The Longing is perhaps the most apt selection for this list. A real-time game that asks players to wait a grand total of 400 days is certainly even more strange and experimental than a border-crossing guard simulator. But as we noted in our review of the game, the experience is more than worth the wait.
The Longing sees players take on the role of a Shade, who is tasked with waiting 400 days before awakening a being known as the Mountain King. The game progresses in real-time, and one of the benefits of having it on mobile is that you can put it down and have that progression take place in the background, instead of having to have it open on your PC or other device.
While you wait, you can explore the caves in which you find yourself and begin solving a variety of puzzles, many of which are timed. Wait for slow water droplets to fill a puddle or a spider to spin a web on which you can walk, for example. All of this gives you ample time to explore, but as we note, even these 400 days may not always be enough to uncover the multiple endings this game has to offer you.
As we noted in our review, there is a significant amount of waiting involved in the game, and this encourages introspection about the nature of your character’s existence and their purpose. You’ll also get to explore some lovingly rendered backgrounds as you pace the underground halls, uncovering your Shade’s history and more about what might be taking place in the outside world.
Another game that breaks with our standard of "little to no action" somewhat. Sigma Theory does, however, have a heavy focus on choices and consequences for characters in-game - just like how in Papers, Please, your choices affect both characters you meet and your own family. We discussed it in one of our App Army roundtables where contributors pitched in with their thoughts.
Sigma Theory sees you commanding a loose group of secret agents, all hunting a new surge in powerful technologies triggered by an innovation called - fittingly - The Sigma Theory. It’s your job to navigate the complex inner lives of your agents, their competing allegiances and even their personal lives, all while keeping your own neck off the chopping block and acquiring these technologies for your nation, or at least stopping competing nations from acquiring them.
You’ll have to direct your agents on where to go, assuage the fears of your partner/spouse, guide agents when or if they’re discovered and stay one step ahead of an enemy always looking to root out traitors and saboteurs. With the whole world as your stage, there are plenty of enemies you’ll need to keep ahead of and many ways to do it, whether with bribery, coercion, investigation, sabotage or leveraging one of the technologies unlocked by the Sigma Theory.
Like other games on this list, the comparison to Sigma Theory and its appropriateness for fans of Papers, Please comes from the focus on human interaction more than the actual gameplay style. As with Papers, Please, you are beholden to the unseen and abstract politics of your superiors, and will have to put aside conventional morality to achieve your objectives - even if that includes putting innocent people in the firing line.
Sigma Theory is currently only available on Android.
Again, we always need a wildcard pick. And while Plague Inc is drastically different in terms of scope, you couldn’t ask for a more grim and pessimistic game than one where you build a disease to wipe out all of humanity. Ultimately, it’s the same introspective look at the fragility of human life in the face of an uncaring world, except instead of a political monster, it’s a biological one.
Plague Inc challenges players to evolve a virus, plague or disease that is capable of wiping out humanity. To do so, you’ll need to strategically place the initial infection, develop new symptoms capable of increasing the spread of your disease, and evade attempts by health authorities to develop a cure. You can also go beyond the scope of regular diseases to have viruses that induce zombism, vampirism and more.
Plague Inc has stood as one of the most enduring games on mobile and PC. And during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was even a new expansion released which switched gears, placing players on the side of those trying to cure diseases rather than spread them. Aside from the new challenge, it has players reassessing the human cost of their actions when the perspective is changed.
The grim and darkly comical subject matter aside, just like in Papers, Please, there’s a focus on the human cost of what we do not normally consider in our everyday lives. Although the population of Earth is dehumanised and abstracted into simple numbers, every so often, there’s an inkling of the horror you’re causing in your pursuit of total global saturation.
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home
It should go without saying that the original Valiant Hearts is probably one of the most heartfelt and melancholy games out there. I mean, World War One isn’t exactly a cheery setting, and Valiant Hearts: Coming Home continues that trend. If Papers, Please makes players think about the effect their choices have on people during peacetime, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is sure to do the same for wartime.
In Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, you play as a cast of four different heroes and interact with a variety of others, from soldiers to medics, to sailors and pilots. As you do so, you’ll solve simple interaction-based puzzles, make your way through action sequences and generally experience both the horrors and pulse-pounding excitement of war through the lens of a graphic-novel-inspired adventure.
While Valiant Hearts has a much different gameplay style, focusing on action and puzzles with numerous minigames and some action set-pieces, the human story about the cost of war and the influence individuals can still have in the face of it fits neatly as a contrast to Papers, Please. Whereas Papers, Please is arguably a game about despair, the Valiant Hearts series has always been about hope, albeit more of a silver lining type than anything more heroic.
We also feel the need to mention it because it's arguably one of the best games out on Netflix Games - a sorely underutilised service that may end up being folded into their dreaded "ad-supported" category at some point in the future. So if you happen to have a subscription to the streaming service, you won't have to pay a penny extra to experience what Valiant Hearts: Coming Home has to offer.
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is available on Android via Netflix Games.
One of Amanita Design’s games, Machinarium stood out during our research for this list. Set in a grim, dystopian but still engaging world, this game perfectly encapsulates the adventure gameplay that may seem at odds with games like Papers, Please. But the atmosphere and slow, puzzle-focused gameplay definitely encourage you to take your time and get immersed in a world of surreal machinery and robots.
Machinarium sees players take on the role of a robot looking to save his girlfriend from a group of criminal robots. It’s a pretty simple plot set-up, but in the course of the game, you’ll solve a dense collection of point-and-click puzzles while exploring the mechanical landscape of the city in which you find yourself. To do so, you’ll use your unique characteristics as a robot and perform the usual procedure of clicking on everything and finding bizarre ways to use the items you acquire.
While it may be hard to see the comparisons to Papers, Please at first, I’d say that there’s an undeniable sense of melancholy and general weirdness in Machinarium - something which you’re probably already familiar with and likely had to accept in the course of Papers, Please and its strange, stylised cast.
Alright, we’re sort of cheating here because we also made this selection for our "Games like Dead Cells" list. But whereas that was due to the atmosphere, the supernatural themes and magic, we’re selecting this again for entirely different reasons. The multiple-choice gameplay, the character bonds you can create or squander and the grim, oppressive atmosphere of becoming a cultist for an eldritch mythos are all just as compelling as the real-world-based bureaucracy of Papers, Please.
Cultist Simulator is a sort of virtual deck-builder where players juggle a variety of cards representing the game world. You can place cards on certain others to activate effects, for example, if you place a card representing vitality on the city, you’ll begin exploring and uncovering new locations. The game is a constant balancing act between your very human need for funds to live and contentment to keep depression at bay, and the ever-encroaching desire to discover the hidden truths of the world.
While Papers, Please focuses on very real, human horror and the dehumanisation experienced by both the victims and perpetrators of an unfeeling bureaucracy, Cultist Simulator is a much more supernatural experience. That doesn’t stop you from having, or voluntarily deciding, to make horrible choices. Whether that’s sacrificing another cultist or unleashing eldritch horrors to destroy your enemies, it’s a bit more grandiose than whether or not you let someone with an expired entry visa through the border.
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