Review: Papers, Please

First of all, as you can see from the, again, quite long absence, I’m not really back in the groove of regular writing again. There were also some work-related, but especially personal things that came up and kept me away from playing and writing because, frankly, they were more important to take care of. I still don’t want to give up, so I’ll try with an unusual game that I stumbled across.

The Game

I’m not even sure whether Papers, Please is a real full-fledged game. It has the basic requirements, I guess: you have a goal, means to reach that goal, and rules you have to follow to do so. Even if the rules constantly change, and the goal isn’t much more than “do your work well enough to survive on your salary”. That used to be enough for a game in the old days, and I guess it still is.

As the game tells you: "Glory to Arstotzka"!

As the game tells you: “Glory to Arstotzka”!

The setup and the rules you have to follow are somewhat tedious (by design). You are a citizen of The Great Arstotzka, a Soviet or post-Soviet nation with fascist undertones, who has recently finished a border war. You have been assigned the position of immigration control at a reopened border post. Your job is to check passports, all day, every day. And boy, are there a lot of forgeries (I guess that can be attributed to the game nature). Let a person in or send it back? At the end of the day, you get evaluated for performance. How fast were you? How many mistakes did you make?

The main screen. You'll be staring at this a lot.

The main screen. You’ll be staring at this a lot.

The UI is as minimalistic as the game’s premise. One static screen, with a few sprites. Low resolution. Clunky interface. This is actually my main gripe with the game: I don’t mind retro design, and I every now and then play old games. However, a little bit less mouse-dragging and clicking would have made the game less tiring for my mouse arm which, after a day of office work, is happy if it doesn’t have to do more than necessary of that. The cramped interface is actually one of the main enemies you have to fight. In the later stages of the game, where you have to juggle a passport, travel permit, travel supplement, work permit, audio transcript of interview, and your rulebook, your workspace is so small that you have to drag around stuff constantly to check documents against each other. Your other main enemy is time. Too slow processing immigrants? Tough luck, your salary is based on the number of people you process each day. Hope that your savings can offset rent, heating, food for your family. And pray nobody gets ill and needs medicine… On the other hand, work too fast and make mistakes? Missing a wrong gender entry, or a mismatch in names between travel permit and passport, or that the issuing city of the passport is not in your list of valid issuers? Citation! First two each day don’t cost you, but from then on, you’ll be fined, which eats into your salary big time.

Your working desk seems to be designed not to be able to hold all required documents. It gets worse than this later on.

Your working desk seems to be designed to not be able to hold all required documents. It gets worse than this later on.

All of this doesn’t necessarily make for a very compelling game. But it’s not the game itself that makes it interesting, it’s rather the atmosphere. The orders you get each day are from a faceless entity, and feel arbitrary. One day, immigrants need a small transferable travel ticket, the next day a personalized travel permit. The next day work immigrants need a work permit. Then you are instructed to treat your citizens preferentially. Then there’s an attack on the border post, and the government blames a neighboring country. You are instructed to subject all citizens of that country to “random body searches”.

"You detain people, I give you money."

“You detain people, I give you money.”

In short, your instructions are strict, feel arbitrary, and are hard to understand. The way you are talked to doesn’t help endearing your government to you either. Then the moral choices start. Let a woman pass even though she forgot to buy a travel ticket, simply because she says it’s her first chance to see her son in years? Or what about the couple, the man who has an immigration permit, but there’s something wrong with his wife’s papers? The man who is desperate to get medical treatment in Arstotzka that he can’t get at home? What about the shady guard who visits you and tells you that the government pays him for every detained person, and he’s willing to give you some kickback if you funnel him people? When you realize that the money you earn from your job cannot keep you afloat if you’re unlucky enough to have a bout of flu in your family, you might be grasping at straws like this.

Beyond The Game

The compelling thing about Papers, Please is that it puts you into the role of a small cog in a large, inhuman machine. You can “just follow your orders” and not alert the guards to the pimp who’s smuggling women, because his papers are in order. You can separate the couple I talked about above. And for all of this, you are rewarded with an increased salary. And in the end, you can always justify it by saying that “this is what I had to do to survive myself”. On the other hand, the first two mistakes each day are not punished. You can try to save these for the cases where you bend the rules to help out desperate people. The game puts you in a situation where it is very easy to say “I was only following orders, this is what I had to do”, while actually giving you at least limited choice.

He had no choice but to follow orders either, or so he said.

He had no choice but to follow orders either, or so he said.

This is a quite accurate way of depicting a totalitarian system. As I come from Germany (and like to read about history), I feel like I’m quite informed about our history, including our dark spots. Most people who made the Nazi system work weren’t evil in the normal sense. They just did their job, did what they were told, and didn’t question what they were ordered to do. This is the frightening thing about it, and the reason why totalitarian systems work so well. You don’t need many evil people; you’d never get enough of them have them personally control every corner of a country. What you need is to make the average Joe feel like they should follow orders, either because you make them feel good about following them (rewards, instilling a sense of “being part of something important and great” – the Nazis were among the first who effectively used mass media for manipulation by means of Gleichschaltung), or because you make them feel bad about not following them (instilling fear, making an example of select cases). The human mind is very malleable. A person can be ruthless in their day job (in this game: detain the immigrant with a simple typo mismatch in their documents), and still be a loving parent at home (worry about earning the money to get medicine for your kids).

I’ve only played the game about halfway through the “storyline”, but I’ve noticed that I tend to have little mercy for my immigrants. Since I have problems keeping track of the more complicated rules, and can’t check all of them without spending too much time, I cut some corners during inspection, so I’m reluctant to use my two “free” daily citations to help out people. And I tend to detain people when there is even a hint of foul play. After all, there are regular terrorist attacks on the border posts by people let through. Or is it rather because of the kickbacks? Since money is so scarce to come by, and you will be homeless and lose the game if you can’t pay for at least your bare necessities every day, there are incentives to make you behave immoral. I first thought this is one of the main drawbacks of this game: as much as I like the retro style, it makes it hard for me to empathize with the pixel people in front of me. I only see them for seconds each, and their faces cannot convey emotions to me because of technical limitations. I was ready to say that this is where the game ultimately fails: that the gamification incentive (earn as much money as possible) is not properly offset by a feeling of moral obligation.

On the other hand, there is enough food for thought. Isn’t there a lot of gamification in morally shady areas in the real world, too? Managers get bonuses for short-term boosts by laying off people without caring for long-term developments. Soldiers get shiny medals if they kill others well and often enough. All of these work because people drift into a dangerous mindset slowly, without noticing it, and because there are rewards waiting for them to engage in that behavior. The game might at least trigger some introspection and make you spend some time with the question of how easy it can be to slip up and become a tiny cog in an evil machine, in which case it is a success after all. Yes, of course, it’s easy to argue that “it’s just a game”. But isn’t it also easy to become an armchair criminal by “just following orders”?

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