GLORY TO ARSTOTZKA: Mundane Tasks and Moral Dilemmas in “Papers, Please”

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?

The situation described in the above paragraph.

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.

Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.
One of the possible endings of the game.

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.

An example of interrogating a trans immigrant.
An example of interrogating a potentially trans immigrant.

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.


  3 comments for “GLORY TO ARSTOTZKA: Mundane Tasks and Moral Dilemmas in “Papers, Please”

  1. Sweetman
    February 13, 2015 at 1:44 am

    I think this is a rather good synopsis of a dreary game which shows you the decisions that must happen in life sometimes. However, I never found the message about transgender outing as you did when I played through the game. This game has a very Russian block feel to it and the mislabeling of gender wouldn’t be for a transgender issue hidden within the game I feel, but rather to reduce the chance of them being found within the country since the mislabeling of the gender helps you not be found within the country you snuck into. Would love to hear about any evidence you found to the contrary, but that it the context that I know which helped me understand this game more.

    • mclark6
      February 17, 2015 at 8:59 pm

      I think the mislabeling of gender could potentially relate to both of those issues, or any others that the player may come up with as they experience the game. Your perspective as the inspector is only limited to one fragment of their life with little to no explanation — they could be a transgender person just trying to go about their life, they could be disguising themselves and their identity, or they could be doing neither. I would not leave transgender people, or anyone else from the LGBTAQ community, out of my critique of any game because they and their representation are always relevant. While I don’t believe Pope intended for the game to include LGBTAQ issues (if he had, they probably would have been more direct and upfront) I do think that he wanted the player to question their prejudices of the people they met, as I discussed in the third section of this article. If someone reacted strongly to what they interpreted as accidentally outing an LGBTAQ person, that only means that he accomplished his goal.

  2. mgaughan
    February 13, 2015 at 2:28 am

    There are transgenders in that game? I never got that far… anyway, the large moral dilemmas really are what make that game good. The game gives you minimal controls when playing it but reminds you that everything you do has a consequence and that you are deciding the fate of hundreds of people. One thing I like about the game is even when you, the player, hate yourself for doing horrible things, you can receive bribes for continuing to do said horrible things. The more illegal aliens you contain, the more the guard will pay you. And after making all these difficult choices every day, your boss comes in to give you a certificate to show how much he cares about you (not at all). The only person who really cares about anyone besides himself is you, the player. Seeing countless names and countless faces, you have to decide if someone gets in, or if your family stays unfed. Glory to Arstotzka.

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