I’ve occasionally heard the argument that it’s impossible to make a game about an ordinary person. An exceptional plot, they say, demands an exceptional protagonist. Somehow he or she must be special. Maybe he’s all-powerful, or maybe she’s exceptionally brave. Maybe he’s simply in the right place at the right time. In other words, he needs to be “the Chosen One”. Otherwise, it’s just a game about a guy living his life, right? Get up, go to work, buy groceries, pay the bills. Nothing special.
If anything, Papers, Please has shattered that myth for good. Here is a game with a simple premise: playing a border guard in charge of inspecting passports. It’s a concept so tedious it almost sounds like work. And yet, I found its game play so rich and imaginative that I became utterly addicted. Not just merely playing to press onward, but absolutely glued to the game. I put off sleep and studying for it. And even more magnificent was that it not only changed my perspective of what a game could be, it even altered my perceptions of the real world.
Papers, Please places you in the dirt-covered boots of an unnamed worker from Arstotzka, a Soviet-style eastern European country with a less-than-stellar human rights record. The monthly labor lottery has put you in charge of Arstotzka’s border checkpoint, a one-man position situated inside a small wooden shack amidst miles of barbed wire and dismal concrete barricades. Your job? Inspect the immigration papers of each entrant and ascertain their eligibility for passage into the country.
It seems like a deceptively simple proposition, but even from the get-go I found this initial challenge to be pleasantly intriguing. It’s an exercise in acumen – are you clever enough to spot the error? Maybe the document has expired, or the names are mismatched. Maybe the picture is out of date. Eventually you are forced to decide – allow or deny? If you were perceptive enough, you chose wisely. If not, a fax machine screeches out a violation from headquarters. Something is wrong. You messed up. You should have chosen otherwise.
At the end of the day you go home to your family. Very quickly you become aware of the standard of living in Arstotzka and the true challenge presented to you in Papers, Please. You have very little money, and your family needs food and shelter. First there’s the rent. That always comes first. But then there’s food and heat. Some days you can afford it. Other days you can’t make ends meet, and your family goes hungry and cold. What’s more, you’re paid by the number of entrants you process each day. Not enough money today? Better be quicker tomorrow.
But then things get interesting. More documents to inspect, more rules to follow. Foreigners require entry permits but citizens only need an ID. You need to go quicker and yet the process has only gotten longer. You allow an immigrant to pass, but are soon met with another violation. Crap, you forgot one of the rules! Don’t be so careless next time!
By the time I had gotten to the fourth day, my mental checks had become seared into my brain. The figures that passed before my station weren’t even people anymore. They were numbers. A height, a weight, a hometown. Did I care that I allowed a husband to pass through but sent his helpless wife to the back of the line? Not one bit. You don’t follow the rules, you get sent back. It’s as simple as that. These people are strangers, but your family is starving. Their needs will always be your top priority, no matter what.
Then, just as you think you have the game figured out, another curve ball is thrown your way. A man appears before you and admits he doesn’t have the right papers. But for the price of a green stamp, he’ll be back in two days with a reward. You pause your routine. Do you accept? You need the money, you know you do. Your family hasn’t eaten in two days. Do you trust this man to follow through on his promise? How much do you value your loyalty to the government?
I slowly place his passport in front of me. A green stamp slides down. I hand it back to him and he’s on his way. A violation screeches out of the fax machine, but I don’t sweat it. It’s only my first for the day, meaning no docks in my salary just yet. Two days later a package shows up at my house. It has $20 in it. My family would have food and heat for another night.
And just like that, when everything was starting to feel predictable, the rules of the game had been thrown out the window. It was no longer about doing what was right, it was about doing what was best for myself. What would make me the most money? It was the only question that mattered. Thus you begin a delicate balancing act of pleasing your superiors (or rather, fooling them) while gaming the system for yourself. Do you help the resistance movement that needs your cooperation at the checkpoint? For the right price, I suppose. How about the soldier who’s willing to share the bonus he receives for the number of people you detain? Same answer, of course.
And thus I had completed my total transformation into a self-serving bureaucratic zombie, unwavering in my selfishness and corrupt to the bone. But here’s the surprising part – I was utterly self-assured that none of it was my fault. Not just pretending in a role-playing sort of way, but actually convinced of my innocence. It was not about right or wrong, or loyalty to the Arstotzkan government. It was about my need to survive. Don’t blame me – blame the soldiers sticking guns in my face telling me to work. Blame the government that hires those men to stick their guns in my face. It’s not my fault. I have a family to feed. I’m just the one stamping the papers.
And so, despite being a faceless civil servant, nameless amidst the unwashed masses of an oppressive regime, my stamps became weapons of mass destruction. Lives were ruined at my bidding. Families torn apart by my arbitrary adherence to senseless, draconian regulations. And yet, I still remained nothing more than an ordinary man. I got up, went to work, bought food for my family, and paid my bills. And it still culminated in one of the finest gaming experiences I’ve had in a long, long time.
If you have not played Papers, Please yet, I highly recommend you pick up a copy at this year’s Steam Holiday Sale. I went into it having few expectations, and Papers, Please managed to shatter all of them. It wound up not only being a damn addictive game to play, but also a thoughtful examination of cowardice, selfishness, and simple self-preservation in the face of a totalitarian regime. Glory to Arstotzka!
Final Verdict: An absolute gem, this game is not to be missed.