A man comes to my desk, pudgy, short and desperate. It’s cold enough to freeze migrating birds midway through a flap of their wings, but he’s sweating. Bad sign. He gives me his passport, and his work permit, and to my surprise everything is in order. Approved. Stamp. Close. Toss.
As I hand them back, he starts to beg. He wants me to let his wife through, no matter what. They’re in danger, and a family should be together. I knew there was something else.
His wife is next. She doesn't have the right documentation. I shake my head and plant the DENIED stamp on her passport. I have two warnings already this day. One more and I lose pay. I already can hardly pay for the heat in my home, and I’ve run out of savings. She disappears into the rejection line.
This game is a job. Better put, it’s a highly refined disempowerment game, the exact opposite of a world-hopping military squad or the fantasy universe chosen one. At the best of times, I feel petty and small. At the worst, I’m snivelling and lash out at those nearest to me. And I loved it.
The game provides you will constant reminders of your insignificance. The communist republic of Arstotzka recently ended a war against Kolechia. The terrorists attempt to bomb Arstotzka to regain their rightful land. But this has nothing to do with you. Neither do the political games behind the daily headlines, which affect the game’s rules but rarely go beyond adding or removing challenge to the grind. The game affects a looming sense of dread that every decision could be the wrong one, and even the right ones could turn around and bite you.
Papers Please provides numerous workplace hazards. Not the terrorists, who blow themselves up on the other side of the street. That’s within my control. If I focus, I can keep their number down. And let’s be pragmatic. They blow themselves up once they’re crossed, not at the actual crossing. They can’t hurt me. The hazards come in form of the government and resistance. I have bribes to pay and I have bribes to take, all of which determines my allegiance. But who has time for politics when my wife is at home, sick and my children are hungry? I wish they would leave me alone. I have people to process. My job was desperate enough without these hawkish factions.
It’s ironic that in my attempt to sympathise with the border guard role, I grew detached from all the other characters. Occasionally, I despise visitors more, like the wife-beating football player and so I refuse them entry. But rarely do I feel like I have to let someone inside. When people tell me that they lost your papers or that they didn’t know the day’s rules, it’s easy. I reject you, or I get you arrested, depending on what my bosses are pressuring me to do. At the end of the day, I’ll do whatever’s needed so long as I don’t unexpectedly hear the tick-tok-tapping of the teletype machine.
In a way, I have a real power, to allow people the opportunity to work or start a new life. Yet, it’s not gratifying to let people through. People rarely thank you, and the game seems far more focused on just letting your survive than ever thriving - at least in my playthrough. Perhaps others were much better at their job than I was. More often I use my power to lash out, like a petulant child, intent on making sure others are having a just as a bad day as I am. There was a man who came to the border repeatedly with fake ID, not understanding the rules, and eventually I just rejected him even when he had the right documents. I received a warning immediately. I felt terrible, but not for long.
Part of the issue is that Papers Please gives you twisted rewards, like confirmation that your wife won’t die from disease, or that your children aren’t starving. There are no gold stars for trying hard. Purchasing upgrades to my work space feels useless, especially when my next day could be an utter failure, and I’ll have to dig into my savings.
Since I’ve spent about 600 words explaining how much misfortune I encountered in this game, why keep playing? I had to ask myself this several times throughout the game. I’m not being paid. The gameplay is rote, and I don’t usually play games to feel like I’m doing hard work. Papers Please has a plot but it’s only a small part of the game. The reason is that ultimately, there is something engaging about misfortune. Papers Please creates strong emotions, even if they’re largely negative. I felt hate, mistrust, fear, and frustration. And that’s incredibly valuable.
Consider this in comparison to the goal of the AAA game, our blockbusters in the industry. The Assassins Creeds, Call of Dutys and Battlefields which come out every year, and constantly try to up themselves. Better graphics. Bigger explosions. More dire plots.
Yet, these games have so constantly been trying to raise the stakes that they’re laughable in hindsight. Modern Warfare 3 has Russia invade all of Europe at once, while the main characters gallivant from one set piece to another. Each level in that game feels less valuable than the last because they’re equally dire. The world is about to blow up and yet there is no danger. A lot of that comes from the lack of character focus and the forgiving gameplay mechanics. If I died, I’d start inches from where I left off. But really, who cared if my character in that game died? They switch around so frequently that they’re impossible to distinguish. The game does an effective job of making me feel powerful. Everything explodes. I am the reckoner, and the destroyer. I felt like a hero - a hero in an incredibly boring world, where every problem was solved easily by a rifle. It was like being a child stepping on a world made of paper-mache.
Assassins’ Creed faced a similar problem. At the end of Assassin’s Creed III the fate of the world hung in the balance, but the game was so focused on making the stakes impossibly high that it forgot to give the main character a personality. Assassins’ Creed literally gives the player godlike aspirations, but again, I don’t want to be a god in a when the world means nothing. Think about the phrase “saving the world” for a moment. A world is not a planet that happens to have people on it. The world is comprised of the people I love and care about, and they all happen to live on Earth. Saving the world in Assassin’s Creed felt like I had saved a lump of molten rock instead of a place that held billions of people.
When I finished Papers Please, in one sense, it felt like I saved the world. I didn’t manage to change much. I wasn’t even promoted for my efforts. My family survived though. So when the time came to stop playing Papers Please, I felt elated.
The family members have zero characterization, but because of the crushing depression of the gameplay, I was forced to imagine them. I don’t think everyone had the same reaction as me, but they could get sick and they needed food. In some sense these requirements meant I had to figure out why they needed food and why they would want heat. By a week into the game, I didn’t want my kids to die. Not just because the game would end, but because I didn’t like this platonic idea of starving children to die.
I’m never going to replay Papers Please. It’s too depressing. I had my experience with it, and I didn’t have fun - which is exactly the experience I was looking for. Papers Please creates a world that was both fascinating and distressing, and in some sense is comparable to one’s own life. As much as we’d like to imagine that our life consists of great moments - the birth of your first child, winning the hockey game, getting promoted - most of it is the rote repetition of the grind. And if that’s the world Papers Please was looking to emulate it did a horrifically good job.