Papers, Please is a single-player pixelated puzzle simulation video game created by Lucas Pope and developed and published through the production company 3909 LLC in August 2013. This indie game can be played with Microsoft Windows and OS X, Linux, iOS, or on the PlayStation Vita. On the game’s website, it sells for $9.99 for PC, Mac, and Linux. It has since been translated into 9 different languages including English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, Japanese, and Polish. In this game, players take on the role of an immigration inspector in the fictional communist state of Arstotzka. The player can decide who is let into Arstotzka based on the short dialogues with the travelers, documents provided by the travelers, and several different in-game systems such as inspecting, searching, and fingerprinting the travelers. Players are given changing rules and guidelines for travelers’ documents in accordance with the political climate changes in Arstotzka. Players can choose to approve or deny travelers as they wish. This game involves strong emphasis on themes such as conformity, violence and terrorism, immigration, and consequentialism and the ethics surrounding these themes. How the players approach these themes affects which ending, out of twenty different ones, that the player can receive.
- 1 Synopsis
- 2 Gameplay
- 3 Reception
- 4 Ethical Concerns
- 5 References
The player plays as the Inspector, an unnamed male from a village called Nirsk, whose name was drawn in the 1982 October labor lottery and assigned to work at the Grestin border checkpoint in Arstotzka after the 6-year war with Kolechia (Arstotzka’s neighboring country). He works 12-hour workdays and is given a basic apartment for his family and himself. The game starts with fewer rules and guidelines with minimal documentation, and as the game progresses more rules and guidelines are given. As time progresses, the inspector is given the ability to detain suspects and eventually the ability to attack terrorists with weapons. The inspector faces several terrorist attacks, spies, journalists, diplomats, and secret agents throughout the game. Regulations and rules the inspector must follow to process travelers change due to Arstotszka’s political climate such as trade regulations, terrorist attacks by Kolechia, a virus from a neighboring country, etc. One plot point in the game is the EZIC Star, a mysterious organization that claims they want to free Arstotzka from its corrupt leaders. The player can choose the amount of which to aid in EZIC’s plans, the choices revolving around which can lead to several different endings. Arstotzka’s political climate becomes increasingly hostile and on Day 29 the inspector is given the choice to escape Arstostzka with his family, which ends the game if chosen. On Day 31, EZIC attacks the border and the inspector’s fate relies on the loyalties set prior in the game.
The player controls the inspector, deciding who to let into Arstotzka.
Credits are Paper’s Please’s in-game currency. The inspector is paid a small number of credits for each traveler correctly processed according to the game’s protocols and rulebook. The inspector may also gain credits through detaining travelers, accepting bribes, working with government rebel group EZIC, downgrading apartments, attacking terrorists, or switching to easy mode. Each day, the inspector may lose credits through incorrectly processing travelers according to the game’s protocols and rulebook, mandatory rent, heat, food, medicine for different family members. Without food, heating, or medicine for a certain period of time, the inspector’s family members can die. The player can reach an early ending if rent is not paid or if all family members die. Other expenses include moving to a new apartment, adopting the inspector’s niece, or a birthday gift for the inspector’s son.
When there is a difference between in-game facts, such as between the traveler’s several documents or between the traveler’s documents and the rulebooks, the inspector can choose to interrogate the traveler. Discrepancies can include forged documents, missing documents, and any other differing information both in the dialogues the inspector has with the traveler and the traveler’s documents. When asked for more information, travelers can provide documents or have a short dialogue, after which options to fingerprint, body scan, or detain the traveler may become available.
Some travelers will explain why they must be let into Arstotzka by providing an excuse. Excuses include a husband and wife fleeing from their home country (only one of whom has proper documentation), a mother trying to meet her son, a woman trying to escape a human trafficker, a man seeking revenge for his murdered daughter, etc. Some travelers may provide a credit bribe or token in exchange for their entry. If the traveler does not have correct documentation and the player lets the traveler into Arstotzka, the player will receive a citation, the first of which each day is a warning, the citations following have a penalty where the player loses increasing amounts of credits.
There are two game modes in Papers, Please. The first game mode, “Story Mode,” is available from the beginning, where the player has up to 31 playable days where they can reach an ending on any day. There are scripted events that occur on certain days based on the timeline that can have an impact on the player’s ending. The second game mode, “Endless Mode,” can be unlocked by a five-digit code given at the end of a certain ending in “Story Mode.” In “Endless Mode,” the player can choose the game type to be either Timed (where the game ends in ten minutes), Perfection (where the game ends at first citation), or Endurance (where the player is given points for each correctly processed traveler which must stay positive) and are given an endless stream of travelers to judge before their game ends.
The inspector’s booth serves as the main interface for the game. Each morning, the inspector will walk to the booth before travelers will come to submit documents and enter Arstotzka. The inspector will interact with different parts of the booth to find discrepancies in the traveler’s documents. The booth has a shutter, counter, clock, rulebook, audio transcript, bulletin, weight display, height display, and area to display plaques given to the inspector.
The shutter separates the inspector from the traveler on the other side. It serves little in the gameplay, but will shut automatically open and close when a traveler is detained or a terrorist attack occurs.
After Day 16, the inspector is given a tranquilizer gun to help take down terrorists. In the event of a terrorist attack, the shutter will close, and a key to unlock the weapons drawer will appear. The player can choose to shoot the terrorist. After Day 23, the inspector will be given a sniper rifle by EZIC which can be used in a similar manner. Depending on who is shot and/or killed, the ending can change.
This is where all items are handed to the inspector.
This shows the game’s time which can be brought up in the case of discrepancies related to time such as expired documents.
Contains all of the rules of the game and information that can determine entry approval. The information found in the rulebook can be brought up in discrepancies.
Each morning, the inspector receives a bulletin with updated information. Based on the player’s choices, each day’s news may be different. Rule changes and new features may be present on the bulletin, along with “Wanted Criminals” which can be detained or used in discrepancies.
This shows the dialogues between the inspector and traveler and can be used for discrepancies between spoken words and written documents.
Shows the weight of the traveler which can be used to find discrepancies. If there is a discrepancy, a body scan can be performed.
Shows the height of the traveler which can be used to find discrepancies. If there is a discrepancy, a body scan can be performed.
The inspector can occasionally receive plaques from his supervisor. These are the only authorized wall hangings. Other wall hangings include the inspector son’s drawings, a soccer team banner, etc. If the supervisor sees unauthorized wall hangings, the inspector can be fined or eventually arrested.
Each day starts with looking at the daily newspaper. Articles may change based on the player’s actions. Then, the inspector will walk to the booth, reviewing the daily bulletin and orders. Some scripted events may occur such as the supervisor inspecting the booth. Then, the player can call the first traveler, starting the in-game clock. The player can find discrepancies and approve or deny the travelers until the inspector’s shift ends. When the day ends, the player handles the inspector’s credits for the day.
Papers, Please has received positive reviews with a Metascore of 85 across 40 critic reviews, which is consistent with the user score which is 8.5. It has also received an ‘Overwhelmingly Positive’ rating on Steam. Lucas Pope in August 2016 tweeted that there were 1.8 million units of Papers, Please sold across platforms. Papers, Please was nominated and received several awards. It won the BAFTA Strategy & Simulation, The New Yorker Best Game of 2013, Forbes Top Indie Game 2013, Independent Games Festival Grand Prize 2014, Wired Best Game of 2013, and several other awards. Papers, Please also inspired a short live-action film created by two Russian filmmakers. The creation of this film was authorized by Lucas Pope and was given highly positive feedback about it on Steam.
Papers, Please deals with the theme of conformity. In the game’s design, there is a limited, darker color palette and the only soundtrack is the Arstotzkan anthem, a dirge-like march. The sound effects can be repetitive, such as the sound of the "Denied" stamp and the voice of the inspector calling for the next traveler. This creates a consistent, steady rhythm that lends itself to the monotonous life of a low-level bureaucrat. The player plays as an unnamed, faceless character, which Morrissette says shows a lack of identity and individuality in the dystopian totalitarian Arstotzkan regime. With the repetitive nature and large amount of paperwork in the game, desensitization or decreased empathy can occur for immigrants and these characters, as the UC Davis associate professor Jorge Peña found. Players may choose to see these characters as another number, regardless of their stories, conforming to the standards Arstotzka provided. However, players may also choose to push against these standards to align with their personal morals or values.
Violence and Terrorism
The inspector faces several terrorist attacks throughout the game. While in the beginning, the guards manage the threats by shooting the attackers, the inspector is later given a tranquilizer gun and eventually a rifle gun. These attacks include wall climbers who attempt to throw grenades, suicide bombers, and vehicle attacks. These attacks often have depictions of blood, and depending on the player’s choices or shooting skills can result in the death of guards. The inspector also has the ability to detain suspects, where the guards will drag a traveler away. These have varying levels of violence—some travelers leave calmly while others are detained more violently such as being hit with the back of a gun before forcibly being dragged away. While some of these attacks can be avoided, there are many that are unable to be stopped. Along with these attacks, the inspector will also have the opportunity to poison a traveler or shoot a traveler at EZIC's request. There are some concerns with a younger audience playing Papers, Please and being exposed to violence. IMDb, a website database for entertainment information, has an average user rating of “Moderate” for violence and gore, with users saying that while there are violent moments, the pixel art reduces the intensity. The Entertainment Software Rating Board has rated Papers, Please as Mature 17+ due to violence, blood, sexual themes, nudity, drug reference, and strong language.
This game extensively deals with immigration issues. This game includes forged documentation, people trying for asylum, those looking for work, families trying to stay together, issues with human trafficking, and more. The player can choose to approve, deny, or detain a variety of different immigrants to Arstotzka. The Ringer has noted the accuracy of these issues, drawing a connection with Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travel and refugees from several majority-Muslim countries. In a similar manner, in Papers, Please, on Day 19, entry from the country Impor is blocked due to trade issues and on Day 24, Arstotzka starts to confiscate passports from travelers from certain areas. While political parallels could be drawn, Lucas Pope stated his goal was not to make a political statement, but rather to just create an interesting game where players would consider the role of low-level bureaucrats.
Nudity and Transphobic Themes
In instances where there is a discrepancy with a traveler’s recorded weight, height, or gender and their perceived weight, height or gender, there is an option to perform a body scan on the traveler. With this option, a front and back image of the nude traveler appears on the screen. This can reveal contraband or weapons. The option of full nudity can be turned on or off in the settings function, but reveals a lack of privacy and personal body autonomy in the travelers. In the United States, full body scans similar to that of Papers, Please, have previously been a topic of media and legal debate for its “invasive and ineffective” nature which questioned travelers’ rights to privacy. While the previous body scan technology created a 3D model of travelers’ naked bodies, after privacy concerns and legal issues, in the United States, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has switched to a technology where workers select whether a traveler is male or female, and they will see a general outline of the selected figure. Discrepancies are highlighted along the outline. Due to the binary selection of perceived gender, this has led to issues (such as additional pat downs, further questioning) with transgender or intersex individuals whose bodies may not reflect that expected of the selected gender. In a similar manner, in Papers, Please, travelers may have features that go against the expected characteristics of the sex listed on their documents (which include only male or female options). Failing to clear this discrepancy can lead to a citation stating “Invalid Gender.” Using a body scan, the inspector is shown one of six different body models, three models with a penis and lacking breasts classified as “male”, and three models with a vulva and breasts classified as “female.” The sex of the traveler is based purely on the body model rather than any facial features or dialogues. If a traveler has differing anatomy on the body model than the documents stated, the inspector can choose to detain them or deny their entrance without citation. The citation of “Invalid Gender” in Papers, Please, has created discussion of transphobic themes in its players. While some say that this phrasing and situation was hurtful and “cold”, others say that the situation was created in this manner to reflect the time and setting of the game.
Ethics proposes the idea of consequentialism, the idea that if our actions harm someone, that action is immoral. In Papers, Please, the player has limited view on the results of their actions. While the newspaper may provide minimal information such as if the inspector let in a murderer resulting in death, the results of most of the player’s actions remain unknown. This game allows a space for the player to consider their own ethics. There is no ending that is inherently better than the others and there is no way to “win” the game. The game does not reward good morals, it just gives a citation to the player for every traveler let in under incorrect documentation or not let in with correct documentation, and gives the same amount of credits for each correctly processed traveler. Pope tried to keep the game non-judgmental in the player’s actions, limiting the knowledge known about both the inspector’s life and the travelers’ lives. Players can take a “fairness or justice approach” where they treat everyone equally. If a traveler does not have proper documentation, the player can have no favoritism, regardless of the travelers’ stories. Alternatively, the player could take a “virtue approach” and consider what kind of person they would be if they took certain actions. The game provides several dialogues to allow the player to think about their choices or empathize with the characters. For longer gameplay, the player cannot allow every traveler in due to citation fines which would quickly lead to the inspector’s arrest. However, the player has one citation each day without consequence, so the game is designed to allow for a level of sympathy for the travelers. While there are many endings, none of them are triggered by smaller instances of “rebellions” against the system. While there may be small incentives to take certain actions to receive “tokens,” the main drive to take action is the player’s own ethical views. By putting an unnamed character as the character the player controls, the repetitive actions, and by utilizing first-person perspective, Papers, Please helps to replicate the monotonous bureaucratic work of the inspector and allows the player to immerse themself in the role. At the end of the “Story” mode of the game, the player has an opportunity to become the traveler at the border, further allowing them to consider the choices they made throughout the game.
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