This story was originally published on Medium, March 4th, 2017.I’d heard a lot of things about how compelling Papers, Please was since its release in 2013, but my Steam queue is always long and winding and there’s never enough time (or money) for yet more games. Recently, though, the game was on sale, and that sale coincided (coincidentally?) with the real-life refugee ban uproar. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and bought it. I went in to the game expecting to enjoy myself, and hoping for a little political perspective. I didn’t expect to come out of the experience feeling so dirty.
In Papers, Please, you play a border agent in the fictitious, fascist-seeming nation of Arstotzka. Your job is to inspect people’s paperwork and decide whether or not to let them into the country. That’s it. That’s the whole game. As such, I suspected that I would find the gameplay a bit mindless, but that my perseverance would be rewarded with an uplifting message about one small person’s ability to make a difference in the face of an oppressive regime.
I was wrong on both counts. Here’s what it was really like.
From a mechanical standpoint, the game starts off simply: people come through your border station; they hand you their passport; you inspect the passport to make sure all the information is legit; you stamp them through or deny them entry accordingly. You don’t have carte blanche: you’re a low-level employee and if you start randomly stamping passports on a whim, you’re going to attract the attention (and, eventually, the ire) of your higher-ups.
Hell, even if you make a few honest mistakes in judgment early on in the game while you’re still learning the ropes, you’re fined or maybe even paid a visit by the shadowy Inspector.
As a result, bucking the system is made to feel impossible at the onset: immediately, the game is a headlong rush to learn how to navigate an ever-more complex deluge of bureaucracy while being given constant reminders that your family’s well-being depends on you excelling at following the rules. Add to all of this the fact that many people hoping to pass into Arstotzka are fleeing hard times or even persecution elsewhere, and you might imagine Papers, Please as a nonstop parade of complex ethical decisions that all need to be made in a matter of seconds.
And yet, provided that you can learn the rules fast enough to stay ahead of the curve, the minute-to-minute gameplay is, strangely, less Sword of Damocles and more Pure Moods. After a “day” or two of play (each in-game day works as a new “level”) I found Papers, Please lulling me into an almost trancelike state. The process of checking each individual’s passport was the same, and the rhythm of that process across the course of a full in-game day quickly became hypnotic.
The game rewards you with more money the faster you race through passport checks, and the more money you have, the easier it is to make sure your family back home stays warm and fed. Even when I faltered from time to time and, as a result, received warnings that my family was cold from no longer being able to afford to heat our apartment or that my son was sick because I could no longer afford his medicine, my trance remained intact, so long as nobody back home was in immediate mortal danger. Inside my information-checking pattern, inside the machinery of bureaucracy, inside a game that is mesmerizing in its perfectly-paced introduction of increasing complexity, I was safe from life in dreary, pixely Arstotzka for eight hours a day. And that’s what really came to matter.
Stamp, stamp, stamp.
As I alluded to above, the challenge of Papers, Please ramps up the further you get into the game, with narratively-justified changes in border-crossing procedure introducing all kinds of complications. Alec Meer, in his review of the game for Rock, Paper, Shotgun describes a typical late-game interaction thusly:
Man arrives, offers his passport, entry permit, work pass and identity supplement. You need to check his name against the permit and work order, then his passport number against the permit, along with the expiry dates for all four against today’s date. And his photo with his face, obviously. And his gender — if that doesn’t look like it matches up, it’s time for a scan, which will show him or her naked. Check his weight and height against the measurements listed on the ID supplement, as well as the short description listed there. Then you need to make sure the reason for entering and duration he states matches up to those listed in the paperwork, spot if his date of birth is a real date, check that the issuing town listed on the passport really issues passports according to your rulebook, and that the symbols on everything match up to the official ones. Oh, and make sure his face is not on that day’s Most Wanted list, and ensure he’s not someone you’re supposed to illegally let through if you’re willingly helping the secretive organisation.
This might sound tedious at best and nail-biting at worst And yet, my experience of the game remained…well, the best word for it is “meditative.” Internalizing new rules took a few tries, and occasionally I would incur a penalty in the process, or have to restart and try a given day two or three times, but eventually each new wrinkle in the bureaucratic fabric was smoothly integrated into the pattern I’d developed for checking passports. I could sit calmly in the eye of the storm of paperwork, sorting through others’ fates while remaining completely unattached to the consequences of my actions. At least for awhile.
And had this been all there was to the game, I could probably say, guiltlessly, that I enjoyed it. But to its credit, the narrative of Papers, Please interrupts the game’s ludic trance in a few important ways.
[SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT]
The first time “terrorists” attacked my border crossing station, the game introduced a wrinkle that couldn’t be ironed out by internalizing the details of bureaucratic procedure. And that’s when I started to feel like a dick.
A few days into the game, suddenly, and with no warning, a guy rode up to the border station on a motorcycle and detonated a bomb, killing a few of the guards right in the middle of my goddamn shift. And that was my first reaction: the attack ended my shift early, and so I was unable to collect a full day’s pay, putting me behind on paying for my son’s medicine. I didn’t care at all about the political ramifications of the attack. I didn’t care at all that two of my coworkers had been killed. I was just upset that the attack interrupted my ability to make more money and maintain my sacred stamping pattern. So that was…interesting.
By the time I was given a tranquilizer gun and clearance to gun down any future “terrorists” (who at this point in the game I’d been given reason to believe were actually associated with an anti-fascist resistance) I was excited at the opportunity to shoot them myself. They were costing me money, dammit, and, perhaps worse, they had introduced a variable into my routine that couldn’t be dealt with simply by reading, sorting and stamping. They were a threat to the status quo and thus needed to be destroyed.
It might be important to note at this point that in “real life,” I’m extremely leftist politically. I teach literature at a university, wear black-rimmed glasses, have a beard that frankly really only belongs on a lumberjack, Dunedain, or hobo, and actually own a suit jacket with elbow patches. One of my proudest moments as an undergraduate was protesting against the second Iraq war amidst black helicopters and armored policemen beating my fellow students with nightsticks. I voted for Bernie Sanders and have marched against Donald Trump twice already. When I play role-playing games or really any game with a morality scale of any sort, I nearly always play the “good” character. I sunk many more hours than I should have into Undertale recently because I couldn’t bear to kill anyone who didn’t deserve it (and nobody deserved it). Papers, Please had turned me into not-me. I find that fascinating.
Later in the game, resistance agents from the “terrorist” organization Ezic infiltrate your border station and request that you fulfill some tasks for them to strike back covertly against the Arstotzkan government. I participated in this until it resulted in my pay being docked as a punitive measure. Then I ignored the resistance agents, choosing to toe the line instead, mostly for my own sake, but to a lesser degree for the sake of my family.
On the other hand, when corrupt Arstotzkan officials ordered me to spoof documentation to let them through the station on their shadowy fascist business or to detain their political enemies under false pretenses, I did it, even at my own (financial) cost. Ignoring the Ezic agents but willingly cooperating in identically incorrect actions for the Arstotzkan agents became about maintaining what I could of Papers, Please’s hypnotic gameplay loop, the game’s ludological expression of Arstotzka’s political status quo.
Trying to play both ends would have resulted in so many financial penalties for my “mistakes” that it would have been nearly impossible to keep my family alive. Already under increased surveillance by my superiors because of my previous collusion with Ezic, choosing a side was easy. I was not a rebel, I was a patsy for the man.
Brilliantly, Papers, Please used its game mechanics to lull me into the comfort of a pattern, simulating through its gameplay the way that the machinery of a mindless task can dull our awareness of the consequences of that task’s execution. As the (relative) complexity of the narrative was then slowly revealed throughout the latter two-thirds of the game, I was forced to choose between upholding the sanctity of my pattern, the only element of my life that I could control in Arstotzka, and the slight chance of a better, less morally-compromised future. If I lost that gamble, though, I and my family would pay with our lives. The choice seemed obvious.
Papers, Please is an impressive (virtual) illustration of how the machinery of oppression is comprised mostly of little gears that often (or always) have the consequences of their turning hidden from them, and thus remain (willfully?) ignorant of the part they play in propping up the status quo. What’s more, the surprisingly compelling gameplay feels great. You feel a dopamine rush every time you successfully check someone’s stack of six documents in less than twenty seconds. If you can get that time down to fifteen seconds, it feels even better. Of course, within the context of the game’s narrative, this means that it feels good to screw people over, and it feels better and better the more efficient you become at it. The more people you deny entry to or detain, the more competent you feel, and the easier it is to ignore the next person’s desperate plea for sanctuary, to respond only in terms of rules and data, a collection of numbers and letters that is either approved or rejected based on preordained criteria. And, in the end, there is no “good” way out; even to achieve the game’s “best” ending, you need to confiscate the passports of at least seven innocent civilians, denying them entry into the country and choosing you and your family’s well-being over theirs.
In the end, Papers, Please didn’t do anything to change my politics or my stance on immigration. However, it showed to me how far I am willing to go to uphold the status quo if my own well-being is on the line. It showed me how convincingly evil can dress itself up as the mundane, the day-to-day, and how the opiate of predictability can cause us to accept things we would never accept otherwise. It showed me that maybe I don’t know myself as well as I thought I did, and gave me a lot to think about in terms of my place in this recently gone-crazy world of propaganda, “fake news” and everyday activism. And rather than doing all this by spoon-feeding me a heavy-handed narrative, it did it primarily through gameplay, using what Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric.”
Papers, Please made me profoundly uncomfortable in an extremely honest way, and for that, I’m glad I played it.