Every day, you leave your family at your state-provided apartment and walk to work: a gray pillbox, flanked by soldiers, on the outskirts of East Grestin. Your wife is sick and you can barely afford to pay the heating bill. You feel fortunate to even have a job. Every day, immigrants and citizens returning home queue in an endless line, snaking through barbed-wire obstacles, in the hopes of entering the country. Some come to work; some are just passing through. Others, perhaps, come for more nefarious purposes.
This morning, you read in The Truth of Arstotzka, the state newspaper, that thieves broke into the Ministry of Admission. So when you arrive at work, you are not surprised to find a bulletin from the ministry announcing tighter security measures. “Double-check that required documents contain valid seals. Correlate missing or wrong seals against the appropriate countries in the documents chapter of your rulebook.” Another layer of bureaucracy and paperwork has been laid upon your shoulders.
Papers, Please (2013), by the designer Lucas Pope, available on iOS and Steam, is a game about paperwork. If you are one of the people who responded to the current political climate by purchasing George Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon, then, boy howdy, do I have a video game for you.
One of my earliest childhood memories involves my father, hunched over his dinner, sawing away at some meat substance and complaining about “paperwork.” He spit out each syllable as if it were a piece of insect that had flown into his mouth. Then he sighed, said his boss was “a slave driver,” and carried on eating.
Clearly, from Dad’s mournful body language and dyspeptic pronunciation, one could infer that paperwork was bad. I reflected on this. Eventually, I decided that “doing paperwork” had to mean toiling on some kind of contraption made of paper. Which, in the words of Obi-Wan Kenobi, was true from a certain point of view.
Papers, Please puts players in control of an unnamed border agent in the fictional Eastern Bloc totalitarian state of Arstotzka in 1982. The rules are simple: Decide who can enter the country. This is accomplished by checking each traveler’s documents — passports, visas, work permits — for authenticity and cross-referencing with various guidelines handed down by the state. The state’s instructions are initially simple. Those holding Arstotzkan passports — assuming the information contained therein matches the person at the window — are considered citizens and may cross the border. Take out your green ACCEPTED stamp, mark the appropriate box on the entry visa, hand the owner back his or her documents, and call the next person in line.
As the game progresses, the restrictions on immigration become more complex. A trade war with a neighboring country causes the Ministry of Admission to ban travelers from the nation. Rumors of insurgent groups with forged documents mean every seal and stamp in an entry visa must be double-checked against those in your handbook. If a traveler is heavier than the weight indicated in their passport, then they must be questioned and X-rayed for contraband. Faces are checked against the state’s most-wanted list. Perhaps a prospective immigrant doesn’t resemble the photograph in their documents, in which case fingerprints must be taken and processed. With each passing day, there are more details to check. Some travelers don’t have the correct work visa, or have papers that would have been valid yesterday. These must be scrutinized closely.
Around day two or three on the job, one of the soldiers who guards the checkpoint steps to your window. He tells you he gets a bonus for each person processed for detention. He offers to cut you in. Criminals — sometimes even terrorists — attempt to pass through the Grestin checkpoint. But this is rare. Immigrants who haven’t kept abreast of the constant changes in state policy are much more common. Every now and again, a traveler comes to your booth with a heartrending story — a dying loved one, children they’ve never seen — but the wrong documentation. You could, easily and legally, hand a few of these people over to the guards and make a few bucks on the side.
With Papers, Please, Pope builds on themes he explored in his first independent game, The Republia Times (2012). In that game, the player takes the role of editor of the titular state newspaper of the fictional country of Republia. The player’s job is to boost the population’s loyalty to the regime. This is accomplished by running stories that cast the government in a positive light (“Agriculture Output Doubles”) or play on the nation’s fears (“Terrorist Leader’s Hideout Destroyed”) or are simply titillating (“Superstars Chad and Jenlyn File for Divorce”). Negative or ominously truthful stories are to be suppressed. And just in case you don’t get the hint, the government is keeping your family in a safe location as “a precaution.”
The interactive nature of Papers, Please gives players a window into how fascism manifests itself in bureaucracy. The brilliance of the game’s paperwork gameplay is that it makes the player complicit in the projection of state power. The player takes personal responsibility for the validity of each document that gets handed to them. If the player is wrong — if they forget to check a visa’s expiration date; or forget that the official MOA seal was changed from an X to a slash; or admit an immigrant with the wrong stamp on their work permit; or forget that Arstotzka, since this morning, has been in engaged in a dispute with neighboring Kolechia, whose various diplomatic seals are variations on an asterisk shape; or forget to check the most-wanted list — then they might be responsible for admitting a terrorist into the country. Each piece of paper that the player checks represents a tacit agreement with state policy. The flip side is that each layer of bureaucracy is an opportunity to resist.
“What I found making this game,” Pope told the gaming website VG247 in 2014, “is that this communist setting or this dystopian, fascist setting works nicely for game mechanics because you can tell the player, ‘you have to do this.’ There’s not a whole lot of questioning of, ‘why?’ ‘You have to do it because that’s how we fucking run things here, we tell you how to do it and you do it.’ That works perfectly well with the setting of some kind of communist government or some kind of bureaucracy where the rules just come down from the top and boom, that’s your job.”
When President Trump signed his executive order temporarily banning refugees and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, I thought about Papers, Please. When I first played the game three years ago, I found it ominous and inventive. Replaying it recently, I found it disturbing and humbling — disturbing because of the clear parallels between the game and Trump’s executive order, humbling because of the way it depicts how easily a person’s morality can become subsumed by the machinery of state power. In the game, I have a family to provide for, bills to pay. To those quotidian concerns, add the immense weight of a bureaucracy and its institutional culture, amplified by the confusion caused by constantly changing orders; the ever-present knowledge that bad actors, however rare, do exist; and the willingness of the state to cast blame squarely upon my head should lightning happen to strike. Under those circumstances, would you do your job?