Indie game Papers, Please offers an engaging and fascinating experience almost entirely through the mechanics of the game itself. As an immigration officer at a hotly contested checkpoint, you are responsible for the flow of people into your glorious country of Arstotzka. The game is effectively a bureaucratic, paper-pushing simulator, but it surprised many by earning critical acclaim when it debuted. You work for a dystopian society, enforcing laws you did not influence or draft, and must chose day-to-day what sort of person you are while processing people as fast as you can. There are a myriad of endings, hardly any of them pleasant, but which begs the question: is it possible to play Papers, Please and end up as a "good person" at the end of the game? In short, not really. The mechanics see to that.
"[Papers, Please] presents constant moral choices but makes it really hard to be a good person," says Zero Punctuation's Yahtzee in his review. You are not the hero. You are just some guy who got picked in the labor lottery to work on this checkpoint, got handed a rulebook, rent, and the responsibility to be the sole breadwinner of your family of five (yourself included). Penalties are imposed upon your pay for each mistake you make and your salary is dependent on the speed with which your process people accurately through the checkpoint. Admitting personable Jorji might mean you don't have the money to buy medicine for your sick son. Denying a man who intends to sell women into sexual slavery but who has the right paperwork will earn you a citation, and possible reduction in pay. You only get two warnings per day, then your pay begins to be docked for errors. Are you good enough at your job to take the hit when someone who needs medical treatment and has all of yesterday's correct paperwork comes through, do you risk the lives of your family, do you risk your freedom, or do you do your job as mandated and disconnect yourself from emotionally attaching to the world around you?
I've seen a lot of posts (both reviews and comments on social media) protesting how gross playing Papers, Please makes a lot of players feel. A lot of the vitriol and emotional discomfort seems to be directed primarily towards having to match genders from passport to entrant, and if the genders don't appear to match then you as the border checkpoint guard are authorized to strip search them through a full body scanner. The ability to dehumanize your fellow man is handed out like rewards for a job well done, and all the while the game presents a constant stream of xenophobic, transphobic, and downright cruel viewpoints from the characters who have power over you. If someone's name is spelled differently on their entry ticket and their passport, detain them as a spy and you'll get a little reward for your efforts to protect Arstotzka. If someone can't prove they have more than one name, off to questioning. As the game progresses, you have more and more tools at your disposal to "deal with" troublesome influences trying to enter Arstotzka than just the little "deny" stamp you have at the very start.
The mechanics of the game reflect an Eastern-Bloc-reminiscent society intending to put the player in the very difficult shoes of a minor cog in the wheel of bureaucracy. In an interview with Scott Shackford, creator Lucas Pope admits that was his intention all along: not always a clear cut good and evil, but an unpleasant narrative about the realities of living in under such an oppressive regime. Pope also admits that he was not intending to make a sweeping political statement about good and evil, or even simply good vs. bad immigration policy, but rather the world as seen by the lowly grunt who must enforce the policy, for better or for worse. What is striking though is that the game commits to showing this through gameplay. Often you do not see results of people who go into detention centers, though sometimes little stick people come out. Most of the main action is relegated to blocky, pixelated stick figures. Even your own family, ostensibly your driving force behind your comittment to going to work every day, get little more than simple lines of text reading SON, WIFE, UNCLE, and MOTHER-IN-LAW. And yet, it speaks to the power of the gameplay that when something bad happens to any of them it still provokes a visceral reaction within the player.
What can you do, then? There are very few good options. Even if you the player opts to do nothing more than to do your job to the letter of the law, there is no guarantee of a "good" ending, nor of safety for you or your family. There are terrorist attacks, people trying to kill you and the guards you work with, and you are suddenly given a key to unlock a gun case to defend yourself. There are visits from the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Admission, directives from your boss to ignore the law for a "friend" of his or else, offers to join a terrorist organization, bribes and in a few cases bribes so extravagant that they serve only as blackmail fodder, plus the weighing responsibility over the lives of your family. Reuniting the couple may be worth the citation, if only because it might chip away at the rock-hard guilt growing in your gut. Perhaps it is possible to be a "good person" to a chosen few, if you manage to do your job well enough to allow for brief periods of humanity. Perhaps that is enough.
Papers, Please is a thought experiment of a game that tells its story almost entirely through the mechanics of the game itself. It places players in a difficult, unique perspective and lets them figure out how they would react. It is easy for audiences and players to assume that they would be the one "good person" or the "hero" in any given situation presented by a movie, book, or video game, often just by virtue of living vicariously through the main character. What Papers, Please excels at is giving the player both limited scope and power, surrounding them with trappings to keep them docile. I recoiled in fear to hear the citation printing after admitting someone wrongly, fearful that there would be another explosion at the checkpoint and it would be my fault. I laughed out loud when I was given a plaque of SUFFICIENCE, which I instantly hung proudly in my booth with realization only coming after I took a step back from the game. Little rebellions, like reuniting the couple or accepting bribes from "good people" were enough to make me culpable to this regime for another day, to make me come back to work. The game is an immersive art piece, and while it may be hard to play as this heroic "good person" figure that video games have promised we absolutely are, playing as just another person trying to get through the day with enough money to keep his own happy, healthy, and fed can be as eye-opening and special an experience as any of the massive triple-A games that seat the player as the very extra special chosen one.
"I think games are growing quickly as a legitimate form of expression like movies, books, art, etc," says Pope. "As it gets easier to make games, and as people who grew up playing video games their entire life mature, we'll see more and more varied stories being told this way. And because games are interactive, I think the potential to affect others will be much stronger with games than with other media."
Glory to Arstozka.