Review: Papers, Please

Papers, Please is worthy of merit for the simple fact that the developer was able to convince someone to publish his game with a pitch that probably went along the lines of, “Imagine a game where you are the border-inspection agent of a communist state and your job is to review passports and approve or deny entry of immigrants, based on different criteria such as: a) are there any typos in his passport? b) is his gender the same as on his document? c) is the emblem print of his embassy slightly off?”. Being self-published probably helped, of course. And the fact that it’s a game that makes the job of an immigrations officer interesting (no offense, immigrations officers).

Check border criteria. Sound the opening announcement. First walks in. Mistake in city name, deny entry. Second walks in. Everything checks, approve. Rinse, repeat. Ignore pleads and requests. Thus goes the day of a border-inspector in glorious Arstotzka. For every person I deny or give entry, the more money I get. And I need money to pay for my son’s medicine. The rules of immigration and newspapers are virtually all the contact I have with the outside world.

A man comes in, says his wife’s next. He checks, I approve. Wife’s passport has a swapped letter in her city’s name. I could let her in, but I’d get less money. I need to buy food for my family. She starts begging, I call the guards.

Contraband... he argues that it's medicine for his wife, but it's still a crime. What will you do?
Contraband… he argues that it’s medicine for his wife, but it’s still a crime. What will you do?

Next day. Deal with a guard, he gets money for each person imprisoned, agrees to split it with me for everyone I send. Crazy man with wrong passport comes in. He probably made it himself, so absurd as it is. Don’t know what he’s running from, doesn’t matter. I call the guards, they drag him off. This week my family sleeps in the warm. At the end of the day, a patriotic, booming tune, to set you up for the following day’s duty.

Thus goes my daily routine. The stress of such decisions, as the clock ticks and you have to cross-reference multiple passport entries with your rules, compounds with the fact that you need to make enough money to feed, keep warm, buy medicine, buy birthday presents and pay the rent of your family’s apartment, likely as bleak as your office, seeps from video game to reality. You’ll come to realize that you can’t survive and be humane in Papers, Please. The more desperate you become – as hunger, cold and disease stack up against you and your kin – the more willing you are to ship people off to prison for an extra five credits because their weight was off by a couple of pounds.

Costs stack and add as passports become an even harder affair, forcing you to choose between what is right and what nets you another day alive.
Costs stack and add as passports become an even harder affair, forcing you to choose between what is right and what nets you another day alive.

Eventually, tedium sets in. You are forced to do the same task, at increasing detail and requiring deeper scrutiny by the day. The game then scales up the impact of your choices: a certain day comes someone who, with a cryptic message, requests you join their conspiracy. Days will go before the consequences of a choice of yours are clear, but in the meantime you’re comforted in knowing there’s something to look forward to. Things like these come in a regular enough basis to break the flow and instill you with curiosity to continue – from terrorists that your personal intervention could catch to the perfectly legal criminal you have no evidence against but could, on a whim, deport.

Papers, Please causes in you what I call the “minor authority syndrome”: your sphere of influence is minuscule, but where it exists your word is law. You can do as you wish with minor consequences, and before you know it you will be taking arbitrary actions because of what your moral compass tells you or in order to feed your family. You’re allowed to let someone explain why there’s something wrong, or even provide you with the document that’s missing and that would make his passage legal, but that takes time – you can just deny him entry because he forgot to pull out an extra slip of paper from his pocket and usher the next one in, no consequences.


By turning disregard for the particular and the individual a means of survival, Papers, Please will make you realize that, when surviving is weighed against kindness, and even justice, you will use every formality in the bureaucratic immigrations office to your favor at the expense of someone else. It reminds me of a movie called Bornholmer Straße, where at one point an officer in charge of the border between eastern and western Berlin must decide whether to allow or prevent the entry of man whose wife has already gone in. He doesn’t have to weigh what’s right against hunger, as I do in Arstotzka. But I’d do differently in real life. This is just a game.

Right?

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