Are you a good person? Are you sure?
People generally find themselves to be, on the balance, good. We are all, in our own ways, ethical. We may make mistakes, sure, but when we aren’t good there are always good reasons. One of the things that set our species apart from all the other animals is the ability to justify our actions.
Games are fundamentally about choice: Shotgun or sniper rifle, left or right, Mario or the Princess. When a game is well designed, our choices can say a lot about who we are. They might even tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know. Maybe things we didn’t want to know.
Step up to the window
From the very first strains of its ponderous, pseudo-soviet soundtrack, it becomes clear that Papers, Please is not about to make your choices easy. Papers, Please fills the gap in the border checkpoint bureaucrat simulator market you didn’t know existed. It is, at first glance, a game about paperwork. If that doesn’t quite pique your interest, consider the following: One of the six finalists for the 2014 Independent Games Festival grand prize (the winner will be announced on March 19th), the game took the top spot on numerous “best games of 2013” lists (including those from The New Yorker, Wired, and PC World) and was namechecked in all sorts of internet nooks and crannies, including a short discussion in the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast.
People are talking. A game that advances an intellectual argument well will probably get attention, but it won’t top lists. Papers, Please manages that feat while being a very engrossing, well designed play experience. It almost makes you feel good about yourself to have so much fun playing a philosophically significant game. Or, it would, except Papers, Please is not about feeling good.
In some ways, Papers, Please is a very simple game. People hand you documents, which you scrutinize for inconsistency. You then stamp their passport with a green “approved” or a red “denied”. People either walk in to your country, or walk away. Every person you send through is followed by tense moments waiting to see if you made the right choice. Your mistakes are never missed, and can rarely be afforded. The shrill dot matrix printer spits out a citation. Desperation sets in (as if the soundtrack and scenery hadn’t already primed you for it). Your margin of error is thinner than carbon paper. Your family is counting on you for shelter, heat, and cabbage. Little Ivan’s cough is getting worse. Someone else gets through who shouldn’t, and he’ll just have to do without medicine…
Who will you be?
One of the things which makes Papers, Please so exceptional is the fact that the character might as well be you. Aside from the circumstances of having a family to support, and living under an oppressive regime, there’s no reason it couldn’t actually be you sitting in that concrete booth, wielding the power of the red and green stamps. Play long enough, and you will internalize the information, remembering the districts of fictional countries. You may even turn your physical desk into a reflection of the virtual one, with easily checked references. The wall between you and the role you play may degrade.
It would be easy enough to play that role if it were just a matter of matching numbers and catching errors. Things are rarely so simple. This game isn’t just about choosing red or green. It’s about choosing what kind of person you’re going to be.
What does it take to be evil? Is evil taking glee in the suffering of others, or exploiting others for personal gain? Read Eichmann in Jerusalem. Sometimes all it takes to do evil is to follow the rules. Sometimes evil is the other side of pride in a job well done.
This is one of those jobs. How good are you going to be at it? Are you going to turn away refugees? Split up families? Are you going to admit known human traffickers who have their papers in order? Little Ivan still has that cough…
Why does it matter?
Good games are about choice. Unlike life, a game can be reset, your choices made again, your options explored. In a game, any regret is a short lived thing. You don’t have to ask “What if…?” You can just start over and find out. You can be a different person.
Will you ever find yourself, red stamp in hand, explaining to someone “I’m sorry, it’s not me, it’s the rules. It’s out of my hands.”? There are a lot of those stamps in the world. If you’ve been through Papers, Please, you might already know a bit about what it’s like. You might already know what you’d do. You might already know how you’d justify it.
Papers, Please is grim, desperate, vexing. It isn’t a delightful romp. It’s something far more important than that. It’s a rare example of a game that just might make you reexamine yourself and the world around you. If you give it a chance, it will get under your skin.
How far can you go and still call yourself a good person? How much can circumstances justify your actions? In Papers, Please, these questions aren’t pondered idly, they are confronted and explored. Does this sound like territory you’re willing to explore? What do you think you’ll find there?