My Life with Games (part 31)–Papers, Please

Are you nostalgic for the Cold War? Does the life of a petty bureaucrat sound thrilling and exciting? Want to grapple with the moral ambiguities of being the face of a system you can’t totally support? Then Papers, Please is the game for you!

Okay, yes, I could totally sell this one better. Like how this game is truly a game design tour de force. How the intersection of game mechanics made me feel more like I was playing a roleplaying game than a puzzle game. How there’s even something oddly enjoyable and thrilling about…well…doing paperwork.

But maybe here’s the best selling point of all. In his preface to The Screwtape Letter, C.S. Lewis writes:

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”

Papers, Please is, in part, an exploration of this idea in video game form.

First, here’s a link to the trailer for the game.

The core of gameplay is the view that you see in the trailer. You are behind a desk, interviewing the various people attempting to cross the border at your crossing. You have a rulebook, giving the details of the various items you need to watch for. If you discover discrepancies in the paperwork, you highlight the discrepancy to ask the applicant for more information. Sometimes this resolves the issue, while sometimes it necessitates a denial of entry or even detaining the applicant for further questioning.

So that’s the game. Review paperwork, then stamp “Approved” or “Denied” as appropriate. Or, rather, that’s the core of the game.

See, you’re on a clock. So you’re doing this processing in realtime. It’s not that any one applicant has a clock. It’s just that your workday ends when you’re out of applicants to process. 

And that’s where the next aspect of the game enters play.

You are paid piecework. So, the more applicants you process, the more money you get paid. Mess up, and you’ll get citations, and eventually your pay will be docked.

And each day, you have to go home and pay the bills with the money you made. Because you have a family to feed and keep warm. You have to pay the rent. Get lax on these duties, and your family can get sick and even die. It happened in my playthrough. I lost two family members to disease because I couldn’t afford both food and heat, and then I couldn’t afford medicine.

So, your performance at the checkpoint directly impacts your ability to care for your family. 

With me so far?

Now comes the next twist.

The applicants you’re processing at the checkpoint aren’t ciphers. They have personality. They’ll talk to you. Sometimes they’ll ask you for favors, or they’ll overshare. Like the woman who mentioned that her husband had just gone ahead of her in line. Or the other woman who slipped me a note, telling me that the man behind her was her pimp, intent on selling her once they entered the country, and please, oh please, don’t let him through.

So, what about that, right? The pimp’s paperwork is in order. I’m supposed to let him through. But should I? 

 But there’s even more! Your country is embroiled in a tense geopolitical situation, which means that the rules for crossing becoming increasingly arcane and difficult to enforce. And then there are the foreign terrorists, hopping the wall and throwing bombs. And then there’s the homegrown resistance movement who appeals to your patriotism to aid them.

There’s probably even more. I’ve only played through the game once. But, without a doubt, the core gameplay activity of processing paperwork is only a small part of the overall game experience. 

This isn’t just a game about playing “One of these things doesn’t belong”. This is a game about morality at the intersection of competing loyalties.

By my count, my character had at least four competing loyalties: 

1) His government 

2) His family 

3) His country (not the same thing as his government) 

4) Humanity in general 

 Following the rules of applicant processing demonstrated loyalty to the government. Making enough money to provide for his family’s needs demonstrated loyalty to them. Aiding the resistance movement demonstrated loyalty to his country (at least in my mind!) And sometimes bending the rules at the checkpoint demonstrated loyalty to humanity.

But these loyalties do not live peacefully with each other. And, as the game goes on, you are forced to make choices between them.
In my game, I tried to juggle my responsibilities. I tried to do good work at the checkpoint, though I’ll admit that much of this was motivated by my desire to pay for my family’s needs. So, yeah, I accepted some kickback from one of the border guards for detaining people, but I didn’t change my actions. I figured that if I could get a little bit extra for food for my family while still doing my job, then there was no harm. I wasn’t looking for extra reasons to detain people, though maybe I was a bit harsher than I might otherwise have been. I mean, maybe. And I was a patriot! So when the resistance movement contacted me, I jumped at the chance to help.

That was morally grueling in its own way. At first, the resistance only wanted me to look the other way when certain people were coming through. though, as the news came out about bombings against government buildings, I knew that I was culpable. And then came the day when they asked me to kill. And, God help me, I did.

Things came to a head when my superiors announced that there would be an audit of my actions at the checkpoint. I knew that there was no way that I could come through that audit without incident. One of the regulars at the checkpoint had told me about a way to get forged passports to get across the border to a neighboring country. (It was an…unusual…relationship.) But it required real passports from that country as a base. So I began confiscating appropriate passports from people coming through the checkpoint. The day before the audit, and I’m still one passport short. I’m going to lose a family member.

I can’t risk it. I have to leave tonight. So I get three passports for me, my wife and my child. My wife’s mother heads for her hometown to try to disappear within the borders of our country. I don’t know if she made it.

As the game ends, I wait at another border checkpoint. This time, I’m the one clutching bad paperwork, praying that the clerk is unattentive. I hand over our papers. He goes back into the office.

I hear one stamp. I hear a second stamp.

Then there’s a pause. It feels like eternity.

And then a third stamp. I heave a sigh of relief. Then, we cross the border, safe but exiles.

Papers Please was a morally exhausting game.  I tried to do the right thing, but I’m not sure I always did. I know that I screwed over perfectly innocent people at the end of the game in my mad dash to get passports for my family.

Papers Please was also an amazing game. There are apparently 15-20 possible endings for the game, which means that your playthrough could be totally different than mine. I’m also impressed by its ability to take core gameplay that doesn’t seem all that interesting and make it fascinating.

But even more, I appreciate that this game managed to make an artful statement through the application of game mechanics, not merely narrative. And it’s an important lesson.

The System will not save you. The System will not give you the guidance you need. The System can never encompass the entirety of a situation. The System can never replace wisdom. The System cannot tell you what is right. And so, at times, the System must be resisted. It must be fought. It must be overturned.

Or, to quote from the Foundation series, “Never let your sense of morals stop you from doing what it right.”

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