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Papers, Please

As a college professor and administrator, a large part of my day-to-day activities involves reading paperwork, ensuring its accuracy, and forwarding it to the appropriate bureaucratic entity. On its surface, Lucas Pope’s 2013 independent hit Papers, Please doesn’t seem like it would provide any kind of escape from the menial aspects of my ordinary life.

In it, you play as a low-level border guard in the 1980s for the fictional Warsaw Pact-like country of Arstotzka. Your job is to check the paperwork of those who cross the border for inconsistencies, scan them for contraband, and be on the lookout for persons of interest. You are incentivized by payment for shuffling people through the checkpoint quickly (see Figure 11.2) but are penalized for letting people through who should not be let through. That payment can be used to provide for your family’s needs at the end of each day, but the payment is never enough to cover all of the needs, so it becomes tempting to take bribes and shortcuts to let more people through the checkpoint.

Figure 11.2

Figure 11.2 Papers, Please

Papers, Please is surprisingly fun. The narrative takes some interesting turns depending on your actions, some characters are quite memorable, and the mechanics are slightly tweaked from day to day, changing the novelty of an otherwise mundane set of tasks. Critics lauded the game. It won the Seamus McNally Grand Prize, independent gaming’s highest award, at the 2014 Independent Games Festival. It was also named the Game of the Year from publications like The New Yorker, PC World, and Wired.

The entire aesthetic nails the sense of duty, drudgery, and desperation that must have been part and parcel of living life in Eastern European dictatorships of the 1980s. Or at least it measures up to the aesthetic suggested by popular literature and film about the time.

At some point in the game, you may be presented with a possible entrant to Arstotzka who does not have the needed paperwork. When you highlight the discrepancy, he will plead with you that he is only bringing needed medicine to a relative and if he cannot get the right paperwork in time, she will die. You can choose to let that person through and receive a penalty (although he may return later to reward you, hopefully), or you can do your duty and press the element that locks the booth down. When you do, pixelated representations of armed guards come in and carry the illegal entrant off screen while he pleads for leniency. What happens to him then? Who knows, you have more people in line to serve.

As a game element, this feels like a true meaningful decision. From the game design perspective purely, it should provide at least a moment of uncertainty because there are multiple desirable paths forward. But the game design perspective can only examine the situation in a vacuum. We subconsciously (or often consciously) use our perspective that we have honed from a lifetime of social and cultural cues to interpret complex events. As someone who grew up in safety and wealth in comparison to someone living through 1980s Hungary, I have the luxury of examining the game design of Papers, Please from a relative distance. Imagine how different the above scenario would feel if you grew up in a dictatorial country where you had relatives killed by the regime for trying to import medicine illicitly? Imagine how that decision would feel if you or your family were once a refugee and an immigration inspection was what saved your family’s life or damned other relatives to being trapped in poverty? Now the game feels cruel.

Pope puts players in no-win situations to advance the story and, for most players, it creates a compelling combination of mechanics and narrative. Consequences are low for most players when playing Papers, Please. Getting a revolutionary killed or not is based on narrative preference at that point. Do you believe that supporting the revolutionaries in Papers, Please will direct the narrative in a better direction than obeying the central authority? That is how most players will make their calculus. But if someone’s family trajectory was defined by someone else making that choice in the real world, that choice becomes obvious and likely loses its aesthetic sheen.

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