It was hard for me to work up the willingness to purchase Papers, Please, 3909 LLC’s game about a border checkpoint worker. $10 to check fictional paperwork? No thanks. But a string of good reviews kept my interest, so during the Labor Day weekend I coughed up the cash and set about learning how to stamp passports at the Grestin checkpoint between the fictional countries of Arstotska and Kolechia.
Papers, Please has appropriately been described as “bleak.” From the dull colors, to the pixelated artwork, to the plot and circumstances of the game (the war between Kolechia and your communist home country of Arstotska); Papers, Please is game that explores the darkness of the mundane. And yet, despite the interface which looks to repulse, it’s extraordinarily engrossing.
Dropped in without a tutorial or much instruction, it was up to me to figure out how to survive. The more people you process in the day, the greater your pay. But the faster you go, the more likely you are to make mistakes. And after a while, mistakes cost a lot. By about Day 3, I no longer had enough money to pay more than my rent; my poor performance at the checkpoint meant I had to forgo things like food and heat. Which meant my family fell sick. By the time I was able to earn enough money to pay for medication, my son had died from the combination of exposure, hunger, and illness. For the rest of the game, I was left with just my wife, mother-in-law, and uncle; until my sister died and I took in her niece.
Now, here’s what gets to me: for the rest of the game, I played as though my son’s death had had a serious impact on me, and changed the way I looked on my job; even though he was never more than a dot with the word “son” printed on it. I was more willing to bend rules. And I’d started to hit my stride as a passport inspector; able to adapt to the increasingly byzantine regulations my superiors were placing on immigration. I was also kind of a hard-ass, turning away journalists, detaining people (which thanks to a corrupt guard, earned me extra cash each time I did it, though I never detained anyone without a legitimate reason), refusing to let wives join their husbands due to expiration dates or printing errors.
The game ended for me when I assassinated a government agent sent to hunt down members of the resistance. This is one of 20 endings. At that point the government finally figured me out; though not before I’d assassinated another of their agents (with an incidental death of an innocent guard), and funneled multiple resistance agents into the country without proper documentation.
This is where it’s worth reflecting for me. Why did I, on my first play-through, make the choice to attempt to overthrow the government I was employed by? They once seized all my assets, true, but those were illegally gained by working for the resistance, and the government only got wise when I conspicuously spent them purchasing a new apartment (that money also allowed me to save my sick family). Perhaps it was the money the resistance compensated me with. Yet bribery never worked on me from anyone whose passport I checked. Or perhaps it was because Arstotska is presented as a totalitarian communist regime, and perhaps that’s why I wanted it overthrown, the natural default of Americans. Yet I never saw much of the oppression; I had almost zero information about what the regime was doing. Perhaps because I’m a romantic and a Rhode Islander, and rebels tend to have my sympathy. But the sad parade of people, who gave me more information about themselves than the resistance did, could hardly earn my hesitance before I stamped their passport.
Regardless of my reasoning, Papers, Please forced me to consider the following question in regard to bureaucrats: when do they get to decide to make the choice between what is legal and what is right? I did what I thought appropriate; help the resistance, but attempt to maintain a near-impeccable record elsewhere.
Small government advocates might think this game is a perfect way of demonstrating the overreach of government; but it’s not. It’s a great way of discussing bureaucracy; which isn’t intrinsic to government; but rather any large system. This game would work just as well were the setting a bank.
A moment that stands out to me was when a woman set a bomb on my desk and stood ready to die. It failed to go off, the guards detained her, and I eventually disarmed it, whereupon the corrupt guard sold it for scrap and gave a portion of the profit to me. I, personally, wasn’t the target. Arstotska was. But as a member of the bureaucracy, an employee of the government, I was a fine stand-in for Arstotska, even though I was sole breadwinner for four other people, and was just doing my job (to my estimation, none of the regulations ever seemed unreasonable, except for automatically strip-searching Kolechians, but that was stopped thanks to international pressure).
I was talking with a couple of former public employees recently, one of whom had recently left public service, and their outlook was that it was a relief to be out of government work. “It feels great to not be treated like I’m the scum on the bottom of someone’s boot,” said one, referring to the way we view our government workers in Rhode Island. It’s hard for us to separate the employee from the employer. Papers, Please forces us to consider that the bureaucrat in front of us is a human (in all its meanings), attempting to following complex rules, take care of their needs, and get through the day.
I’ve yet to play a game more relevant to our day-to-day lives.