While a medium of interaction, video games have often relied upon the same devices that carry film or text forward instead of utilizing the very traits that define it. While the expectation should be that video games would rely upon interactive mechanical systems as its central mode of communication, often it is simply easier to rely upon the standardized languages of these preceding mediums. It is largely why it’s not at all uncommon for a game to deliver the bulk of its characterization, plot development, and emotional drive through sequences of non-interaction.
For example Bioshock Infinite presented much of the characterizations of Elizabeth and Booker solely through recorded dialogue and not through interactions instigated by the player. Most of the key moments in their unfolding relationship took place in periods outside the scope of gameplay, and ultimately what could be boiled down as masked loading screens, whether this was during elevator rides or after Booker had disposed of the hostiles on screen and players were simply waiting for the characters to transition to the next area of their own volition.
Metal Gear Solid IV as well suffered from a dissonance where the game could easily be divided into moments of distinct gameplay and cinematics. While sequences of gameplay were not entirely redundant, the somewhat ridiculous ratio of actual play to watching these cinematics was quite telling. In general, given the complex and strong emphasis upon character relationships and histories in this franchise, most of the interaction between these characters were by and large scripted no differently then a film. Players would play for a brief segment to be rewarded with a lengthy unplayable sequence that would actually move the story along.
And it’s hard to fault developers for this type of behavior. The medium of video games is still in its infancy. To contextualize it to film, while video games have arguably reached a degree of standardization and a system of common expectation like the format of a feature film, it still hasn’t had its “Citizen Kane.” Or if it has, we simply aren’t aware of it yet as there hasn’t been enough time to properly contextualize it historically. It’s probably more accurate to place video games currently closer to the tail end of D.W. Griffith’s career, or around the era of Sergei Eisenstein. A period where the concept of the feature film had been cemented into place, but was still in a heavy development cycle where common practices like editing were still being ironed out.
And none of this is necessarily meant to criticize video games, as there is nothing inherently wrong with this piggybacking atop other mediums. Films are still largely textual despite being a visual medium to no ill effect for example. To put it simply however, video games should embrace its own nature and strengths instead of treating it more as a nuisance. If the medium ever wants to excel as a legitimate means of artistic expression, it has to do so by utilizing capabilities simply not present in other mediums, namely through interaction and mechanical systems.
Papers, Please is one of the rare games that puts mechanics first and relies completely on its systems to deliver a complex set of experiences that couldn’t ever be felt through written text or cinematic means. It’s ultimately something that one has to actually play through, and not merely spectate upon.
The basic premise and setup for Papers, Please is a simple one. The player recently won a job lottery allowing him to work as an immigration inspector at a border checkpoint in a dystopian society. The gameplay consists of working the toll by systematically checking passports, entry permits, and other forms of documentation. Then the player decides if the potential immigrant or individual is allowed in their country based upon the validity of the papers presented to them.
Progress is broken down into days, and the game either ends when a fail condition is met, or the player is able to make it to day 30 and fulfills certain “good ending” conditions. Like any other game, difficulty ramps up as players progress further. This difficulty presents itself through a continuously changing system that keeps adding on more and more regulations or documentation that the potential immigrant must present.
On the first day individuals need only present a valid passport, but by the 14th day they also need an entry permit if they are a foreigner, an ID card if they are a citizen, a work permit if they are coming into the country for work, a physical description card, and several other documents based upon special conditions such as if the individual is a diplomat. And all of these need to be properly checked to see whether or not they are forgeries by verifying that the correct seals are on the documents and that there are no discrepancies between all the varying forms of identification.
While the difficulty especially later in the game appears complex, the actual nature of play is ultimately simplistic, and it’s not what could easily be described as “fun.” The whole ordeal is tedious and panic-inducing when the players has to constantly struggle between trying to push through the highest number of individuals, yet doing so with a proper level of scrutiny.
What ultimately makes Papers, Please unique however, is that through the monotony of stamping passports, navigating through paperwork, and other tedious tasks, is how a powerful and gripping narrative emerges. One that is reliant upon the player’s experience through the mechanics of the game, rather then the brief bits of story and exposition written into it.
Papers, Please is a game that delivers a harrowing look into the hopelessness of what it might conceivably be like to live in a dystopian and totalitarian state. One where simply following the rules won’t keep one safe, rather players must engage in a careful navigation through government officials, fellow workers, and morality where hard choices have to be made.
Mechanics and Hard Choices
Initially Papers, Please seems more like a gimmick then a serious venture into game development but this attitude quickly shifts when it becomes apparent that it isn’t simply a game about stamping passports. By the second or third day, I already made a mistake with brutal consequences.
I let in a man without properly checking his weight, he was a few kilograms more heavier then indicated on his papers but to this point it didn’t even occur to me to check this small detail. I get a notice of violation and just as the man makes it to the other side, he reveals himself as a suicide bomber gruesomely murdering several soldiers on duty.
The consequences in-game are immediate, but more importantly this also means the day gets cut short which results in lost wages that my family desperately needed. With the money I have, I cannot afford both food and heat that night, having to decide which one is seemingly more essential. This struggle to make ends meet is ultimately a recurring theme in the game, and the primary mode of player incentivization.
It is by and large the main motivator for players to do the task at hand and to do it well. Money is earned per immigrant that the player resolves, but is fined if he wrongfully grants entry. Even on a good day, the money earned is typically barely enough to cover all living expenses, especially if a family member becomes sick requiring medicine.
What became apparent when I played through Papers, Please was that the most efficient way to get through work, was to decide on which factors were most likely to flag discrepancies, which were quicker to verify, and ultimately what should be ignored to save time. I found that all the details on the passport should be cross-checked with their entry permits and other documentations. For the most part anything I had to reference in my handbook, I simply didn’t bother with since it took considerable time to do so, for example checking if whether the issuing city was valid.
This strategy of play ensured I would get penalized but also allowed for a larger volume of potential immigrants to get addressed. In this manner Papers, Please doesn’t exactly promote players to do their jobs perfectly, rather more realistically rewards those players that are more efficient even if that means mistakes will be made.
Papers, Please also has as aspect of player choice or agency, seen through occasional dilemmas presented to the player. At times certain individuals may ask a favor of the player, typically involving denying or letting in someone regardless of their documentation. For example, denying a dangerous man entry at the request of a concerned women, despite having the correct paperwork to pass through.
And whether players intentionally choose to let someone slip by is often not a choice based upon morality, but a careful weighing of the exact situation or state they might currently be in.
For example, one such case I faced was when an Antegrian man came up to the window to immigrate permanently to Arstotzka. His paperwork checked out so I let him in, but before doing so he mentions to me that his wife is behind him in line. As she comes up, she only shows me her passport. I ask her about her entry permit, and she admits to not having one.
At this point, I already had multiple violations that day and wasn’t sure I could take another fine. I had to take a moment to ask myself whether I should help this woman I didn’t know personally, at the risk of putting my whole family in danger. I ultimately denied her and while I initially felt guilt, these feelings slowly became those of frustration. As more similar events kept rolling in where they would inevitably blame me for their misfortune, I found myself starting to resent these people who could seemingly not get their correct paperwork in order, but also realizing that the requirements themselves were becoming increasingly unreasonable.
And choices are not always these simple moral quandaries. Many are more utilitarian in nature, finding the player balancing risk versus potential benefits. For example after a certain point in the game, one of the detaining officers speaks to the player about a proposal. Much like how the player gets paid per immigrant, the detaining officer gets paid per detained individual. Because of this he offers a cut if the player can purposely detain more people so he can collect a bigger bonus.
While the choice from a metagaming standpoint is obvious, it is a bit more tricky if the player does not want to engage in this under-the-table dealing. Not only would that player lose out on a potential stream of money, but that detaining officer won’t be too happy about it either and will verbally hassle the player as the days pass. And as the player is under surveillance it is also worth noting that it isn’t even that easy to purposely detain people unless you find a reason to do so first.
As the game gets further along, it becomes apparent that the situation that the player is in is altogether hopeless. Eventually, enough mistakes will be made and their family will starve. The only way out is to leave Arstotzka or hope for the State to be taken over. This possibility presents itself through the presence of the Order of the EZIC Star, a mysterious group that is fighting to overthrow the Arstotzka regime.
Throughout the game, the player can choose to help this group in the hopes that it might result in a better life. But playing to win in Papers, Please can be a rather tricky goal to attain.
“Winning” the Game
Winning Papers, Please is definitely a possibility but the concept of a good ending is somewhat of a misnomer. There are twenty distinct endings to Papers, Please dependent on choices made and how far the player progresses to the end of the 30 day cycle. Some endings can arguably be considered good endings, but the bulk of them are either tragic, or offer little consolation. And personally, I have never been able to get one of the supposed “good endings” myself.
During my first playthrough, one of the members of the Order of the EZIC Star dropped off a package containing a large sum of money. Already in a desperate situation, I took the money home. With my newly gained wealth, I moved my family into moderately better housing and immediately drew the attention of the authorities. Just after a few days, they confiscated my money and put me under investigation with my ultimate fate ending up in prison.
The majority of the endings are very similar to this and always involve the player either being outright executed, imprisoned, or living out their days at a workcamp. If the player did enough favors for the EZIC Order, they may send a letter to let the player know that their family will be taken care of as a small consolation.
Otherwise not only is the player’s fate doomed, but their whole family is left without a means to survive, and in some cases are directly punished as harshly depending on the severity of the crime.
With specific play, players can get three distinct endings that conclude on a more positive note, all of which can be considered as a more proper win-state, more so then the wide array of game-ending states reached by triggering various fail conditions.
Two of these require that the player actually makes it to the last day, and only differs in whether the player aided EZIC agents or not throughout the course of the game. If the player largely ignored them and subsequently aids in neutralizing the EZIC attackers on the last day, the game ends with the player simply continuing to work the border checkpoint.
On the other hand, if the player did aid EZIC agents both throughout the course of the game and on the last day, EZIC is successful in overthrowing the government. The player is subsequently rewarded by the new powers that be, by being moved into better housing and becoming an agent.
While both these endings are distinctly more positive then ending up jailed or outright dead, they are also not entirely hopeful. Simply returning to work under the Arstotzka regime isn’t a satisfying conclusion by any means. While gameplay ends, the implication is that the player is never able to escape from this tenuous position.
While being under EZIC rule might offer hope, it also doesn’t provide any evidence that it will be any better then the previous regime. The true intentions and motivations of this order are never made clear, and while they do seemingly reward the player for aiding them, becoming an agent of their new government isn’t exactly ideal. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine that this new occupation is any less problematic then being a lowly immigration officer.
The last ending, and the only one that offers true hope is to literally flee from Arstotzka. The player can do this by illegally confiscating enough Obristan passports and saving up enough money. A passport and sum of money is needed for every family member that the player wants to take. That said, the player can indeed escape without his family, or only some of its members.
What is intriguing about this last ending is that it essentially places the player on the opposite end of where the game normally took place. Despite who the player does or doesn’t take with them, they end up on the other side of an immigration checkpoint, where they themselves have to be placed under the scrutiny of an officer, of whom ultimately can decide their fate. Also, while the player does successfully escape to Obristan, this ending is only possible through illegitimate means.
Papers, Please is intriguing in how it doesn’t easily put forth a certain pattern of play or morality for a player to follow. Simply toeing the party line doesn’t always keep the player out of the eyes of the Arstotzka government, nor are morally questionable acts always punished. For example, keeping the large sum of money draws the attention of those around you, like what I experienced in my own playthrough. However to attain arguably the best ending, one has to wrongfully confiscate passports from Obristan immigrants.
With its minimalistic mechanics and 16-bit aesthetic, Papers, Please ironically paints a much more complex social and moral landscape then the high production value of something like Bioware’s Mass Effect 2, which in contrast generalizes player interaction into a distinctly binary system of paragon versus renegade. Unlike Papers, Please, Mass Effect 2 even went so far as to “color-code” these morality choices to further clarify to the player which path they might have wanted to follow in accordance with equally binary outcomes.
And what is equally impressive is how Papers, Please is able to achieve all this through the seemingly mundane routine and mechanics of working an otherwise insignificant job. As a comparison point, the recent release of Wolfenstein: The New Order presented a similar exploration of a dystopian world, one which occurs in an alternate history where the Nazis won the war.
While it was an impressive title in its own right, it went about this exploration through much more conventional means. Wolfenstein: The New Order placed players directly in the face of the oppressive forces of the State in a physical confrontation. The oppression was visualized through violence and the literal onslaught of the hopeless numbers of opposing forces they had to face.
On the other hand, Papers, Please demonstrates an experience that is seemingly more common place and relatable, yet with an equal amount of impact. As players largely stuck in the space of a booth for the whole duration, we never come into contact with these physical conflicts. Rather we experience a dystopia much how a common inhabitant would have to live through it, such as dealing with the every day corruption, and social maneuvering required to stay afloat and out of trouble.
And the eye of the State isn’t directly in the face of the player like with the literal soldiers and officers one might have to mow down by the droves in Wolfenstein: The New Order, rather it’s the inability to climb out of a progressively more hopeless situation defined by someone actually trying to live in this horrible society, rather then tear it down or directly fight against it.
In Papers, Please the player isn’t B.J. Blazkowicz or the typical video game hero who has the capabilities and drive to unrealistically dismantle an entire oppressive state by simply shooting things. Rather players instead inhabit the body of an everyman, someone who is largely concerned with their own well-being and that of their family.
And in many ways, Papers, Please presents a far more sinister enemy then Wolfenstein ever did with its hordes of Nazis and Frankenstein-esque abominations. Regardless of the actual odds or realistic probability of success of such a conflict, there is at least something to physically shoot at or literally call an enemy. The world of Papers, Please much like a real totalitarian state doesn’t present such an easy black and white division of who is clearly wrong or right. A friendly neighbor is just as dangerous and ready to rat you out, as a government official putting you under investigation.