While most games entertain players by guiding them through vast, mysterious worlds or challenging them to become great and powerful, the communist state in Papers, Please entertains its players through brutal oppression and hard labor. Fortunately, you have been randomly selected in the October Labor Lottery as the immigration inspector for your great and beautiful country. As creator Lucas Pope describes, “your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia” — all you have to do is inspect a piece of paper and accept or deny the owner of that piece of paper. As long as you serve the state with unwavering loyalty, your family won’t freeze or starve.
Except your job isn’t always that easy. You receive new regulations and demands daily, making your job increasingly stressful. You’re also quickly reminded that these immigrants aren’t just stepping stones on your journey to financial mediocrity — they’re living, breathing humans. They have relationships, they make you laugh, they have wants, and they have fears. Some of them will die if you do not let them in.
But this is what amazed me most about this game: it’s ability to question your morals and send you on the guilt trip of a lifetime. The questioning of ethics — particularly the ethics of the player or main character — has become a common theme in games, most notably in the Bioshock series and several works by Telltale Games. However, Papers, Please does it best and I’m going to tell you why.
First of all, your free will is limited by multiple needs. Lets say you’re working at the booth like I was and you come across a nice older man: his papers are all in order and up-to-date, he’s polite, and nothing is counterfeit. He excitedly explains that he and his wife are escaping Antegria (another terrible country) and are seeking refuge in Arstotzka (they’re desperate). Before leaving the booth he asks you to “be kind to [his] wife” who is right behind him in line. His wife walks into the booth and, of course, her papers are wrong. You point out the discrepancy and she begs you to let her in or she will be taken back to Antegria alone and killed. The pressure’s on: you can’t make any more mistakes today or it will be deducted from your pay, your wife is sick, you’re low on time, but her husband is out there waiting for her and if you deny her he’ll never get to say goodbye. What do you do?
This is one of the easier decisions in the game, at least for me (I can never not help her), but as you can see there’s a lot more going on than simply “do I want to break the rules or not?”. This is one of the examples that Eric Swain cites in his article when he says the game “confront[s] the player with challenges of being someone with power and authority governed by a rulebook”. Breaking the rules wouldn’t necessarily give you a “bad” ending (see “it’s all or nothing”) but it could prevent you from getting the extra money you need to save a family member or helping someone else in line. The decisions in this game aren’t good vs. evil: they’re who do I want to help? which is a much more realistic interpretation of how people would evaluate this.
Second, it’s all or nothing. Even though your free will is limited, there are many, many different ways to end the game, and the majority end in failure. The longer you stay on the fence, the harder it is to get a “happy” ending, or at least one that doesn’t result in your imprisonment/death. In my first run of the game, I wanted to play as naturally as possible and without any knowledge of the rewards/consequences. My game ended in imprisonment because I fell into debt.
But a better example of these “all or nothing” endings would be the terrorist plot line, which allows the player to help an organization called the Order of the EZIC Star, or just EZIC. In order for their plots to succeed, the player has to help the organization at almost every opportunity in hopes that they will “free” their country. On the other hand, serving the state loyally also requires that you deny the organization aid at almost every opportunity. You have to commit to one, the other, or neither in order for them (and you) to be successful. Just keep in mind that, regardless of your choice, you’re living in a authoritarian state — your ending will never be happy.
Lastly, the game goes beyond this “kill or don’t kill” moral questioning and questions the player’s judgement and prejudices of the immigrants they encounter. The best example I can give of this is when you are asked to check the sex of the immigrant if their gender doesn’t “match” the sex on their card. In some cases, yes: this can be a sign of counterfeit papers, but not in all cases because, in case you conveniently forgot, transgender individuals exist.
If you have unlocked the body scanner when you report this discrepancy, you are given permission to scan them to forcibly check their sex. The body scan is humiliating for all immigrants who experience it, but I and many other players felt especially guilty and disgusted with ourselves when we had to harass them with the “are you a man or a woman?” question which, if they are trans, is something they hear every day. Justin Davis remarked in his article that “It was almost enough to get me to stop playing entirely, for fear of outing yet another person”. It’s unknown whether or not Pope intended for this to be a message in the game, but it certainly made a heavy impact on me and many other players.
In conclusion, play Papers, Please. This is one of my favorite games of all time. It’s clever, it’s complicated, and it’s emotionally challenging. Lucas Pope did an incredible job of questioning the player, so much so that it’s almost as if we are the ones being interrogated here, not the immigrants. Best of all, and he did it with simplistic art, unexpectedly addicting gameplay, and a really catchy theme song. Glory to Arstotzka.