Some thoughts on Papers, Please
October 1, 2020
Warning: probably heavy spoilers ahead. Would highly recommend you play the game first.
Many great things have been rightfully said about the 2013 indie game Papers, Please. I want to say a few more things, because its brilliance has been lingering in my mind for the past few months.
The basic premise of Papers, Please is that you are a border immigration officer working for the dystopian government, Arstotzka, and your job is to make sure that any entrants’ paperwork are in order. The catch? Well, you’re paid virtually nothing, and most of the money that you make each day goes to paying off living expenses anyways.
The actual mechanics and gameplay are not only tedious, but get increasingly complicated as the game progresses.
At first, you only have to look for a few basic inconsistencies, such as name spelling, matching photos, expiration dates, or nationalities. But soon, you’re also asked to check work passes, ID cards, access permits, vaccine certifications, asylum grants, and more. And on top of that, you have to always keep a watchful eye for contraband and forged documents, make sure that the entrants’ purpose of trip and duration of stay aligns with their documents, man a rifle in case any trespassers hop over the border wall, and…well, you get the point.
The game is technically difficult and mentally straining. Your typical screen at the late stages can often look something like this:
But the more interesting, and more discussed part of Papers, Please are the interactions with the people that come into your little booth. You’ll process most without trouble, but every so often, someone will walk in, hand in their documents, start talking, and nonchalantly raise some troubling moral questions for you—and when I say you, I really mean you, the player facing the screen.
What do you do when a man with correct documents pleads you to let in his wife, who will be entering next, but doesn’t have her paperwork, and will be killed if she is sent back to her country?
What do you do when a father presents you with a picture of his supposed daughter, who was supposedly killed by a man who will enter your booth tomorrow, and asks you to confiscate that man’s passport the next day?
What do you do when a mysterious spokesperson for a secret organization tries to enlist your help in overthrowing the government? You’ve seen and heard bits and pieces about the corrupt Arstotzkan government all throughout the game. Do you yield? Or do you embrace the robotic nature of your work and only allow those with the right paperwork to pass—you’d just be innocently following orders from your superiors, right?
Do you accept bribes? You’re allowed two mistakes per day before the government starts docking your pay, but those errors quickly add up—and remember, you aren’t exactly living in luxury.
Who do you know to trust? Why do you trust the people—and the stories—that you do? At various points in the game, (scripted) terrorists with valid documents pass your checkpoint and kill several guards. If even those with valid documents pose potential danger, why would you even think to trust those with invalid paperwork?
Papers, Please remains silent. The entrants patiently wait in front of you, and the second hand of the miniscule clock in the bottom left of your screen continues to tick-tock as you decide.
What will you do?
There’s certainly a lot to unpack from the game, but I’m just going to focus on a few things that I found particularly relevant to the real world.
1. “We’re all someone else to everyone else” — Calvin and Hobbes
One thing that stood out to me in retrospect was the sheer number of entrants that I ended up processing throughout the course of the game; it was easily in the hundreds. But I realized that at the moment, I was too worried about not making mistakes to even notice. I only paid attention to the entrants if there was a deviation from my expectations of their actions.
Papers, Please adds to this tension, too. You’re paid a set amount per person, so it’s most optimal to process each individual as fast as possible and not dwell too long on your decisions—that is, it’s most optimal to not treat each person as a person.
I’m sure all of us have experienced this at some point in our lives. Maybe you’ve worked in retail or at an organization that interacts with many strangers. Maybe you’re the president of a large club and you have to talk to a lot of people. Maybe you’re a college admissions officer sifting through 10,000 applications. Maybe you’re sorting through emails. The point is: unless there’s a special reason to, it’s in our human nature to pay as little attention as we need.
So when it’s us in that position, we justify our (occasional) rudeness or indifference to the fact that we simply can’t give our 100% to every single customer all of the time.
But what happens when the situation is reversed?
How many times have you taken offense to your doctor being late to an appointment (even though they told you to be there 20 minutes early, and you were), or when it feels like this seemingly incompetent tech worker is taking forever to process your request, or when it seems like that guy at the DMW counter is being a little bit too snarky to you?
Suddenly, if we’re not careful, it’s very easy to forget that the world doesn’t revolve around us. It’s easy to forget that in everyone else’s eyes, we’re just random, nameless nobodies; we’re just one of many.
Airport security isn’t targeting you specifically. Immigration officers are swamped in applications and paperwork—yours would be one of hundreds, perhaps thousands. Fast food chain workers process God knows how many orders every day.
So the next time you run into belligerent workers, stop viewing it as a personal attack. It’s really not about you; it’s about them.
2. Morality is not black or white, especially when others get involved
This is the most obvious point here, and I think the extensive anonymity and monotony of Papers, Please highlight the importance of personal connections and how they can influence moral decision making. The two most cited examples of this are interactions with a repeat entrant, Jorgi, and a security guard you befriend, Sergiu.
The former lad is quite a character. For one, the dude is like 5’3 and the middle of his forehead has a glistening white spot resembling a mushroom cloud.
Secondly, his paperwork is wrong. Scratch that, actually; the first time you meet him, he doesn’t even have any. The second time, he brings in a comically awful replica. The third time, he’s missing an entry permit. On it goes.
But despite all his transgressions, Jorji’s a familiar face. He’s a funny guy, and he’s always kind to you regardless of if you accept or deny him. By the end of the game, it definitely gets harder to play the role of the strict law abiding worker whenever Jorji comes in because he’s such a likeable dude (even though he is a drug dealer).
As for Sergiu, he’s a guard who comes in and chats with you from time to time. The main event with him is that he asks you a favor: to let in his beloved, Elisa, even though she doesn’t have any paperwork. You aren’t rewarded with anything—you’re actually just monetarily penalized—except for a thanks from a friend. Do you let her in?
Well, I think this sequence speaks for itself.
These in-game friendships bring up the matter of ethical flexibility. I illegally let in Elisa because I had an emotional connection with Sergiu, and the same applies to real life: we’re quick to condemn the notion of cheating or stealing, but may turn a blind eye when it’s our friends doing it. There’s a tacit expectation that because we’re “homies”, it’s permissible to slightly bend the rules.
So it’s a bit hypocritical that we expect others (especially politicians and business people) to be morally rigid when we ourselves tend to be just as, if not more morally fluid. Morality gets really cloudy when personal relationships are involved; why else do you think you see people defend their associates on the news for engaging in what seems like an obviously wrong action to you, an unbiased and objective spectator?
3. Seriously, we only live once
A woman walks in and begs you to later deny a man who is, according to her, engaging in human trafficking and forcing her to work in a brothel.
On my first playthrough, I let the man in on accident (wasn’t paying attention to his name), and the next day’s newspaper said the following:
I was upset.
I decided to replay the previous day, making sure to deny the man this time. Satisfied with my moral redemption, I happily proceeded with the game, only to be met with the same newspaper headline: “Dancers At Grestin Club Found Dead!”
And it was at this point that I realized two things:
- One choice is not necessarily better than another
- You will impact people’s lives in ways that you will never know, and they will affect yours in a similar fashion
As the game continues, you almost never hear again from the entrants you process, so it gets you wondering: do the choices that I’ve been making even matter? What’s happening to all these people?
Unlike in games, we can’t replay our lives to see how different choices affect the future. In Papers, Please, there are 20 different endings; but for us, there is only one. And while there’s no definitive way of knowing if it’s ultimately the better option, I’d surmise that it’s probably better to err on the side of more empathy and more forgiveness than less throughout the course of our lives.
Glory to Arstotzka.