Published on May 21st, 2013 | by David Chandler5
A bureaucrat’s life for me in Papers, Please
I always feel a mild panic when I present identification papers at the airport. The skeptical look from the tired employee, the line of people impatiently waiting behind me, the questions they inevitably ask about my birth date all blend together in a miasma of claustrophobia and pressure that’s only assuaged with the loud thud of an approval stamp on a passport. It’s a cold, mechanical process; it’s also a fascinating game mechanic.
Papers, Please, a game designed by Lucas Pope, puts the player in the seat of a border bureaucrat–someone with a dull job, a dismal home life, and a surprising amount of power. As the border guardian of the fictional Arstotzka, you will scrutinize details and documents of a vast number of immigrants seeking entry to the Communist nation for whatever reason, be it work, transit, or terrorism. But their entry all comes down to you: a person with a digital stamp.
Here’s the description of the game from Pope’s website:
The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.
Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.
Pope bills the game as a “A Dystopian Document Thriller,” and based on the time I spent with the beta, the description seems apt. The world is drab and gray. Muted colors of hazy blues and ashen blacks are only briefly punctuated by a dull, lifeless red that highlights the important areas of a document. Every dead-eyed hopeful steps up to the desk is drawn in ugly lifelessness. The music, too, is loud and authoritarian in Orwellian tones and oppressive beats. It’s an art style that elicits empathy from misery, and it’s disturbingly effective.
This aesthetic carries through in the gameplay and story. You work at the desk to earn money for your destitute family, and each mistake you make means less money at the end of the day. The game begins with simple criteria to fulfill in order to allow admittance, but as tensions between nations rise, the screening process becomes more intense. You will make mistakes because you didn’t notice a visa expired or the names on the four different documents didn’t match. You will let people in who offer you money, or you will keep a mother from seeing her dying son because you can’t afford to receive another demerit for incompetence.
In my time with the game, I was captivated by the rhythmic process of scrutiny as each character seeking entrance became a really satisfying puzzle to solve as the line of hopeful travelers inched forward. I liked finding out the illegal intruder and sending him to be jailed. It’s satisfying to help those who go through proper channels and turn away those that look for an easy way in. The game rewards your vigilance, though with meager funds and an ailing, unseen digital family. As I earned little money, I began to resent anyone who wanted to enter Arstotzka under false identities.
Then, the game made bolder moves. Bribes had me measuring my missteps to see if I could suffer a notice from my employers to let someone slip by. I took the money and was quite pleased with myself until I split up a couple seeking admittance when one of them didn’t have the correct papers. I believed the character when she said she just misplaced her documents, but I had already let someone in who shouldn’t have been. I mistakenly strip-searched a man when I mistook his country of origin for the one responsible for a recent bombing at the border. My higher ups were not happy. I became bored and just admitted and denied people just to see what would happen. Turns out, I let in a man who killed numerous people the next day. I stopped playing for a while.
Papers, Please attempts to create empathy through mundane gameplay, and it’s pretty damn successful. When a migrant worker tells you that a murderer is behind her, and you arrest him even though he has the proper papers, resulting in a notice from your employers, you start to wonder whether the normal reward systems we expect from games are really all that rewarding. As I played, I lost track of an hour or so to the bureaucratic, hypnotic thump of an approved/denied stamp. When I took stock of my time with it, I wasn’t sure why I was still playing this miserable game; I didn’t know if the intelligent system of checks and balances puzzle gaming was worth the moral and aesthetic coldness of the system. Distraught, I paused the game and walked away from the computer to pull a copy of Orwell’s 1984 from the shelf in order to find connections to write about in an article. Then, I sat back down and called the next person to the desk. The line never seemed to shrink.