The woman is from Kolechia, so she has to go through the scanner. Her passport and entry pass are all in order (I know because I checked them–twice) but yesterday a suicide bomber from Kolechia got through the checkpoint and killed two guards, so now everyone from there has to be scanned. The scan shows her completely naked and completely lacking in bombs. I send her on her way through the checkpoint, feeling that we have both been cheapened. As I call the next immigrant to the checkpoint I think about the fact that both my son and my mother-in-law are sick. I will need to choose between keeping the heating on and letting one of them die, or buying medicine for both of them and risking more of us getting sick from the cold. I get up to make a pot of coffee and feel zero desire to sit back down and continue playing Papers, Please.
This is not a fun game. After playing it for an hour and a half I feel dull and desensitized. This is a far cry from what most people would expect from a video game. I am not excited, I am not being transported to more engaging and magical world, I am not experiencing, or having a hand in telling, a rich and compelling story. Instead I am staring at the interior of a bleak Soviet checkpoint, comparing forms to the Byzantine, ever changing and (I want to stress this point) fantastically boring regulations that now govern my life. When I started playing the game, I had music playing in the background. I turned it off after ‘Back in the USSR’ came on. It seemed inappropriate. From then on, I played only to the basic, grinding, two-note soundtrack of the game.
As each new days starts I am given a new set of rules for the border. I call people to the checkpoint and inspect their documents. If there are inconsistencies I interrogate them, and later in the game I call guards to take them away if they are trying to sneak through. I don’t know where the guards take them or what happens to them, but given the bleak tone of the game, probably not anything good.
I do not play games often, and when I do, I tend to look for maximum return on my time. I tend to like games where I have a lot of agency to build a character and define the way they relate to the world, or those where you can win decisively if you manage to outsmart an opponent or the game designer. For me, the joy of games comes from the meeting of the game’s design and what I can bring to it, either by telling a story in the world the game designers have made or by pitting my skills against theirs. I love the moments when I realize that the designer is a sneaky bastard who has laid a cunning trap for me, or those where I narrowly evade it by being that little bit sneakier.
Papers, Please does not give me the opportunity to do this. I can outsmart the people trying to get through the border (Aha! You say you are from Republia, but the issuing city on your passport is in in Kolechia. Application denied, lying capitalist scum!) but there is no satisfaction, just the avoidance of punishment for making the wrong decision. I still won’t have enough money to keep my family healthy. Short of not being fired for incompetency, I cannot do anything to change the fate of my character. I am just a rule-following machine–except for when I choose to break the rules.
My decisions are hugely important to the people passing through my checkpoint. One woman claims she will be shot if she is turned away. Another asks me not to let through a man later in line. He traffics people and is a professional pimp, and she fears that he will enslave her. To start with I make exceptions to the rules and let people through anyway, but as the game continues I become less willing to put myself on the line for them. I begin to hate these people, and their attempts to fool me. Their sob stories are irrelevant. The forms match, or they do not. I ignore their pleas. The next day I read in the newspaper that the woman who asked me to deny entry to her pimp has been killed. I get back to work.
I am a machine of efficiency and adherence to the rules. I am a function of the bureaucratic system. As I play I get better at finding discrepancies, and the system becomes more complex, but at its heart the game asks a simple question: when do you break the rules, and for who? I no longer break the rules. I am a rigid, ruthless enforcer. I am reminded of some of the more depressing jobs that I’ve held. The game reduces me to a set of functions, and I am graded by how well I follow the rules, regardless of my beliefs and instincts. Papers, Please does not care why I have broken the rules, just that I have. The game makes no distinction between me letting through a man who claims he will be killed if I turn him away, and one who I simply let through because I missed a discrepancy in the dates on his documents. I’m punished all the same for breaking the rules, and so I don’t.
Only one man breaks down my defences. He is clearly mentally deficient. He brings in what are obviously forged papers, one of which appears to be written in crayon. He has been to the checkpoint three times before, and each time he has failed to provide anything like the right documentation. The system confuses him, but he doesn’t get angry like the others. He doesn’t try to manipulate me. He does his best to comply, but he is hopelessly unable to deal with the complexities of the system. I should call the guards to detain him. I let him through anyway. Then I exit the game. I do not know why this is where I draw the line.
I am not sure quite what Lucas Pope, the game’s designer, wants me to take away, but I am fairly sure that it is more about the feel and atmosphere than the gameplay itself or the plot, such as it is. There is a Cormac McCarthy-esque commitment to holding one uncomfortable and miserable note until it becomes unsustainable. Papers, Please works to make me feel like a helpless cog in a hideous bureaucratic machine, grinding the lives of individuals into ones and zeros on a form. I feel the need to do something life affirming. Or possibly have a drink.